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Why so many great Springboks are such disappointments for their clubs

By Daniel Gallan
Racing92's South African flanker Siya Kolisi looks on during the French Top14 rugby union match between Racing 92 and Stade Toulousain Rugby (Toulouse) at Paris La Defense Arena in Nanterre, on the outskirts of Paris, on January 28, 2024. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP) (Photo by THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Three drunk blokes on the train from Leicester to London don’t represent the views of all Tigers’ supporters. But their shared opinion of the club’s World Cup-winning fly-half, Handre Pollard, after his 14 points from the tee helped earn a 40-22 win over Exeter Chiefs, opened an interesting subplot.

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Drunk Bloke #1: “He’s obviously brilliant at times.”

Drunk Bloke #2: “But he seems to make a few mistakes every game and he’s not exactly the most creative fly-half.”

Drunk Bloke #3: “He’s much better suited to the Springboks way of playing.”

With South Africa, Pollard has won two World Cups and established himself as one of the most important Test fly-halves in the history of the sport. His clutch goal-kicking, his steady hand under pressure and his physicality mean he is a perfectly shaped cog in the Springboks machine.

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But it’s not just the pragmatic components of his game that seem to operate at a higher efficiency when he’s wearing the bottle green of the Boks. Since the start of 2020, Pollard has more off-loads per game and more break assists per game for his country than his two clubs – Montpellier and Leicester – in that time.

The comedian and cricket statistician Andy Zaltzman said that “Statistics are like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Shove your hand far enough up them, you can make them say whatever you want.” With that in mind, the twisting of variables to suit a narrative should be regarded with some scepticism. But when assessing certain metrics of some key Springboks over the past four years, a notable pattern emerges.

Fixture
Internationals
South Africa
41 - 13
Full-time
Wales
All Stats and Data

Steven Kitshoff has made more carries per game, more dominant tackles per game and won more turnovers per game when playing for South Africa than he has managed for either Ulster or the Stormers since 2020. In that time, Frans Malherbe has had better gainline success for South Africa than the Stormers. Eben Etzebeth has better gainline success, attracts the attention of more than one tackler with greater frequency, and makes more tackles per game when playing for South Africa compared to his time with Toulon and the Sharks.

Willie le Roux has more try assists for the Springboks per game than he does for Toyota Verblitz or the Bulls. Pieter-Steph du Toit’s tackle evasion, gainline success and line breaks are all better for club than country. Damian de Allende, despite playing his club rugby in Japan, makes almost three times as many dominant tackles when wearing the Springbok on his chest. But the player with the greatest statistical disparities is the man who, for six years, has been the embodiment of the Springboks dream.

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Siya Kolisi is one of the most accomplished loose forwards in the Test arena. He can carry into heavy traffic, he’s a threat over the ball and he provides options on attack wide in the trams. He has a superb work rate and a handy off-load game. In short, he’d make just about any match-day 23 at a World Cup.

I wonder if even his most die-hard supporters could say the same about his contributions at domestic level. There’s a cliche in sport that some players require a particular jersey to perform at their best. Kolisi’s showings for the Stormers, Sharks and Racing 92 has breathed life into the adage.

Tries scored, tries assisted, tackle evasion success, gainline success, attracting more than one tackler when carrying, tackles made, tackle success, dominant tackles, turnovers won, attacking rucks hit, attacking ruck efficiency, defensive rucks hit; across all these markers, Kolisi has better numbers for the Boks than any of the three clubs he has represented over the past four years.

How can this be? Test rugby is supposed to be more difficult. Even supposedly weaker opposition are stacked with a country’s best available talent. The level of scrutiny is greater and the stakes are that much higher. What could explain this twist in logic?

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An answer might lie in the stats that connect all the aforementioned forwards. Kolisi, Kitshoff, Malherbe, Etzebeth and Du Toit all hit more attacking and defensive rucks in Test rugby than they did for their respective clubs over four years. That could be a consequence of the Springboks’ strategy that requires every member of the pack to force front foot ball and offer support to both ball carrier and tackler on the deck. It could also be a result of the different demands for their clubs. But maybe the answer lies beyond the GPS data and percentiles.

When Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and the rest of the Springboks coaches link their team’s on-field exploits with the hopes of a nation, they’re doing so to inspire but also to extract that little extra effort from every player. Hitting rucks is something that any member of the squad can do. To paraphrase the former Ireland captain, Paul O’Connell, it’s one part of the game that requires very little talent. It’s all hard work and hunger and desire. And on that front, arguably more than any other team in rugby, the Springboks are the top-ranked outfit.

Steven Kitshoff

Recently, a post on X that attracted around 75 thousand views ranked the Premiership’s top 10 fly-halves of the season. Pollard, the only 10 in the competition with a World Cup crown, was eighth. Fin Smith, Owen Farrell, Finn Russell, George Ford and Marcus Smith were all above him. The many reposts and comments below the line quibbled over the top five, but all were firmly of the opinion that Pollard has been nowhere near their level.

This is the same Pollard that was shunted out to No12 at Montpellier by Italy’s Paolo Garbisi. This is the same Pollard that felt surplus to South Africa’s requirements in early 2023 when Manie Libbok was pulling strings at first receiver. This is the same Pollard who never looked like missing a goal kick as he hoofed the Boks to a fourth world title.

It is said that some players require a particular jersey to perform at their best. When they’re wearing bottle green, they often perform better than most.

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92 Comments
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Gerald 31 days ago

Daniel, there some who don’t perform as they should, but a bit of a generalization. And presume the article is more on some of the ‘expensive’ guys who play abroad but seem to struggle to fit in. If one looks at the Boks playing in Saffa, almost all the Boks are standouts and add real value to their sides. Damien Willemse, Manie, Eben, Bongi, Mapimpi, Moodie, Kurt-Lee, Willie, Frans, Ox….all play real well for their franchises. In Europe, Jasper was no slouch, Pollard at times was good. In Japan most of our Boks play very well- Cheslin, Pieter-Steph, De Allende, Lood …. not too bad. Some of our guys in France probably underperform but are in the minority, and maybe the style and structure not suitable. In Ireland, RG been injured way too much, but Jenkins has been good value for money for Leinster. In Scotland they don’t play badly but end up playing for the Scots.
Yes, some in England have not done well enough, but in Tyrone Green, Esterhuizen, Bernhard van Rensburg, Leibenberg, Thomas du Toit, Du Perez crowd, Kobe’s Wiese… could go on a bit here, the English sides have had more value than they bargained for. So, overall the Saffa’s don’t do too badly, and would be careful to generalize.

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Bull Shark 32 days ago

If the stats are correct, which I assume they are, this is interesting. I wonder if playing outside of SA isn’t quite the same for SA players. There’s no place like home, playing with your own kind I guess.

I’d like to know if players from other countries perform just as well for their clubs as they do for their countries? Or has this analysis only been done on South African players? By two drunk guys on a bus.

T
TheUltimate 33 days ago

I don't know why peoplenare upset here. If foreign fans think they are poor for their clubs and back it up with stats then it's probably true.

Snyman would have been a legend in the NH if he was fit though. He just transforms Munster into a winning machine.

Pollard is 100% the most disappointing one and his win rate outside world cups gives a good indicator. For all his clubs his average win rate is around 52%, inbetween world cups for the Boks it's 55%. Compared to other elite flyhalves who have 70%+ win rates for their clubs.

If anything Manie is a far better investment if you looking for a flyhalf given that when he is on the pitch teams on average win 76% of games.

C
Craig 33 days ago

Test rugby is different level
Some players are just big time players when the stakes are high they play better. The boks often lost to AUS on tour as they wanted to beat AB.
Even at school level this is the case where some guys play better in tough games.

D
Dan 34 days ago

They can’t handle the level of comp in the NH.

Pollard was a complete waste at Montpellier - and was the backup 12 when he left.

Kitschoff was stealing his paycheque every week at Ulster,- getting absolutely rinsed by backup THs in the URC.

There is a reason all the Boks go to Japan - they don’t have it in them to be able to compete.

And yes, they won the RWC. Where Barnes and O'Keeffe were the direct reason for that tragedy occurring.

M
Michael 34 days ago

Several boks said during World Cup they play so hard to give people back home hope.
As an Englishman the Springboks Captain’s life story is an inspiration which should give us all hope and inspiration. Rather like that other great South African, Nelson Mandela

P
PDV 34 days ago

Interesting article. I think the answer lies in a comment Kwagga Smith made during the World Cup. Asked whether it bothers him that the Bok team doesn’t get more credit he said: “We don’t play for people to respect us: we play for each other and we play for South Africa.” The Springbok team is a brotherhood - an incredibly tight unit, most of whom are good friends off the pitch as well. Not only do they not want to let South Africa down, but they fight like crazy not to let their teammates down. Not saying they don’t care about their club teammates, but I think the bond shared in the Boks is just much, much deeper. Tough to forge the same sort of bond at a club over a handful of years. That must translate into superior performances for country over club.

T
Turlough 34 days ago

There is very little creativity in the 9-10 axis for SA. 10 needs to be solid, put the work in and kick the points. the SA counter is almost always via the edge or a kick through for a winger. When was the last offensive backline score from SA against a top team? Perhaps the ultra physical nature of the SA teams means players they get to hit more stats in those games. Maybe the SA pleyers are perfectly suited to the SA system. In other Words they are not club players gathered to play SA Internationals. They are SA International players adapting to play club.

D
Dave 34 days ago

yikes - what a load of crap Gallan. Interesting until after your 1st paragraph, but then again not worth anyone’s time responding to such pointless analysis and of course your dumbass opinions.

B
Barry 34 days ago

Outside of their national camp, club teams seem to take a tighter stance on doping. Think that explains it really.

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