Springboks / 19 October 2019, 10:40am / mike greenaway
If the Springboks go on to win the Webb Ellis Cup, it will be because flyhalf Handré Pollard lives up to his pre-World Cup billing as the most influential South African player at the World Cup.
So far we have not seen the best of Pollard in Japan, and his team needs him to come to the party against the host nation tomorrow, and then hit his straps onwards and upwards.
A conspicuous area where Pollard has not fully exerted himself is the control over the goal-kicking, where we have seen Faf de Klerk floundering.
It is the one aspect of the game where the Boks have been found wanting in an otherwise pleasing advance through the Pool games.
Scrumhalf De Klerk has been the butt of too many jokes because of his unremitting box kicks, too many of which have been inaccurate and, as a result, have given the opposition ammunition to counter-attack.
This cannot happen against Japan, who will lick their lips at the prospect of possession gifted their way through South African inaccuracy, which would give them the opportunity to keep the ball and counter-attack.
What the Boks need is for Pollard to take on the responsibility of kicking the Boks into favourable positions.
So far, the kicking has mainly been the responsibility of De Klerk, who has irked South African fans because he has either kicked too far or not high enough to allow his chasers to contest and attempt to win the ball back.
De Klerk is operating under instructions, we know this, and the box kick when there is little opportunity to attack is a good tactic and the preserve of the scrumhalf, but what we haven’t seen enough of is Pollard taking control of the game and kicking more than he has so far.
Before the World Cup kicked off, 2007 Bok World Cup-winning flyhalf Butch James said the following: “Handré is really important to us. He needs us to be playing at his best for us to have any chance of us winning.” James is right on the money. Every country that has won the World Cup has had a memorable flyhalf that guided their team home. To mind is the likes of Michael Lynagh, Joel Stransky, Stephen Larkham, Jonny Wilkinson, Joel Stransky and Dan Carter.
Pollard certainly has the pedigree of those heroes but if he is to join that pantheon of greats he has to step up against Japan and take his game to an unprecedented level.
Pollard is still just 25, a perfect age to hit his straps, and this World Cup is the platform for him to make his case for greatness, but if he wants to be in that realm of the greats, he needs to take the pressure off Faf and take control of the Boks’ territorial game.
When the Boks are in difficult positions in their half, what we need to see is them steering away from kick-and-hope box kicking and looking to probe the ball into the corners via Pollard’s exceptional boot.
That would require the big Bok ball carriers hammering their team into forward momentum, and then off the back of that, Pollard can steer the ball into the vacant corners. And with the Japanese back-pedalling, the Bok chasers will have a head start.
Pollard has said that he accepts that the responsibility of the Springboks winning this World Cup rests largely with him as the flyhalf general.
He says he takes it personally after he came agonisingly close to having to retire from the game because of injury. A shoulder problem hospitalised him in 2016 and he came close to having to hang up his boots.
“Most of us rugby players carry a niggle here or there, and I went into the hospital for what I thought, was an innocuous treatment and ended up having screws put into the shoulder,” he said.
And a subsequent examination provided worse news.
“There I was lying in hospital and the doctor told me there’s a possibility of never playing again and maybe even losing my arm through amputation,” Pollard said.
“I made a promise that if I got through it, I’d make it count for the Boks.”
He has got through it and now his teammates need him to make good on his promise.