Boks: Pollard MUST only resurface in Japan
Cape Town - Wrap Handre Pollard in cotton wool: you’d need quite a lot of it to envelope the sturdily-built individual, but that seems an essential policy by the Springboks now.
That means no involvement for the consistently assertive, confident flyhalf in Saturday’s non-Rugby Championship Test against Argentina at Loftus, the buoyant new title-holders’ last date before they head to Japan to prepare for RWC 2019.
There will be one more “warm-up” match for the national side, against the host nation themselves in Saitama on September 6 ... 15 days before the big pool showdown with Webb Ellis Cup-holders New Zealand at Yokohama on September 21.
That is when Bok head coach Rassie Erasmus is likely to give the nucleus of his intended first-choice XV for the All Black crunch a gallop, to acclimatise and erase any cobwebs.
But there seems little point in exposing someone like Pollard, who has just played successive Tests on different continents, to the risk of any mishap in the immediate follow-up clash with the Pumas after Saturday’s 46-13 thumping of them in one of their own backyards.
The 25-year-old is arguably already at the prime of his career (remember that he began playing first-class rugby aged 18, although there have been injury interventions) and indicating that much through his increasingly inspired international performances.
He is the runaway first-choice in his critical slot for South Africa.
In an era where backline defences are often so obstinately hard to bust through, Pollard’s strength through a half-gap, physical preparedness near the tryline - it served him well in two personal dot-down instances in Salta - and the excellent speed and range to some of his passing are vital commodities in the Boks’ bid to get over the advantage line.
That his place-kicking prowess remains largely tip-top, and with healthy distance possibilities into the bargain, currently makes him right up there among the very best two or three pivots on the planet.
He seems more determinedly goal-driven than ever this year, especially if you add in his excellence for the Bulls during their lively, most recent Super Rugby campaign in which they were South Africa’s best finishers as losing quarter-finalists.
Even there, though, he did a bit more in fatiguing, ocean-crossing terms than many other SA players, especially as the Bulls had their main Australasian tour quite late in the programme and he was fast-tracked back from injury by coach Pote Human to take part in the tour-closer (having earlier returned to our shores) against the Highlanders in Dunedin.
Only a fortnight later, the Bulls were back in long-haul mode for the knockout tussle against the Hurricanes in Wellington, where they put up a spirited fight before succumbing 35-28.
Throw in the two, recent Tests by Pollard against the All Blacks, again at the Cake Tin, and then in South America, and he has racked up a fair tally of air miles in recent weeks and months.
He almost unquestionably warrants a break now, especially as there should be no concerns at all about aspects like his conditioning: former Bok Warren Brosnihan revealed in a SuperSport chat show on Sunday that, in a conversation he had a few weeks back with Pollard’s then-Bulls team-mate and co-international Jesse Kriel, he had learnt that the flyhalf had been arriving an hour ahead of anyone else even at relatively early-morning training sessions to sharpen his ever-flourishing range of skills.
Bok mastermind Erasmus, who has rotated his troops intelligently so far, will be only too aware of how awful it would be for World Cup purposes if Pollard picked up a serious injury in Saturday’s frankly less meaningful - though still useful for experimentation and depth-building reasons - Pretoria tussle.
Erasmus is likely to name a widely-changed line-up anyway (without any major risk of quality compromise, such is the squad-wide appetite he is building) and I might not be alone in being extremely surprised if Pollard even features in the matchday 23 for Loftus as a substitute.
Instead he will effectively be granted a far better likelihood of stepping onto the plane to Japan in maximum possible physical health and with good mental freshness as well.
But another positive to his omission against Argentina would be the chance to ensure that understudy Elton Jantjies gets important game-time after last beginning for the Boks in the Championship opener against Australia at Ellis Park in the middle of last month.
The silkier, less physically robust Jantjies is a notably different-styled No 10 to Pollard, so the Boks would have to adjust some of their strategic thoughts should he be given RWC starting responsibility in the event of mishap to the incumbent.
Nevertheless, it would also be a little unfair if the left-footed Lions stalwart suddenly had to assume heightened responsibility from a “cold” start in an emergency, hampered by rustiness.
Fielding Jantjies and resting Pollard, assuming that’s what happens, is win-win on Saturday …
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