Cape Town - It’s a sort of homecoming, with apologies to U2, as Handre Pollard returns to his Western Cape roots for an Absa Currie Cup semi-final on Saturday.
The former Paarl Gym flyhalf, born in Somerset West but shrewdly snapped up as a teenager by the Blue Bulls in 2012 despite Western Province insisting they did everything they could to hold onto the wunderkind, seems a betting certainty to start for his adopted province in a classic “South v North” derby at Newlands (17:00).
Pollard, who has supposedly been nursing a niggle or two from his often heroic exertions in the Castle Rugby Championship, only underlined in a few late minutes off the bench against Griquas at Loftus on Saturday just what a tremendous prospect he is at the still pretty tender age of 20.
Not only did he register a try of his own against the predictably outmuscled visitors with a sizzling inside step and then power surge over the line, but the exciting new Springbok also produced two cunning chips in attacking play – one of which directly led to a touchdown by veteran wing Akona Ndungane.
Assuming he is deemed suitably fit to start the knockout encounter with log-toppers WP, it would be crazy for Bulls coach Frans Ludeke not to give him the No 10 jersey at the expense of the workmanlike but greatly more predictable Jacques-Louis Potgieter next weekend.
As SuperSport critic and former Bok coach Nick Mallett - while still tipping Province for the semi - said after the Bulls’ routine 46-12 victory in the second of two “dead” fixtures in terms of log relevance on Saturday: “If Pollard plays it could be closer than people expect ... he’s got star quality.”
Pollard being a vital source of X-factor for the likely underdogs, who ended fourth on the table, would be understandable to many neutral New Zealanders, who saw him produce two commanding personal showings on the trot against the All Blacks in this year’s Championship, first at Wellington and then in the bogey-breaking triumph at Ellis Park last Saturday.
His expected “bonus” presence for the Bulls (as he is not yet among the many contracted Boks forbidden from gracing the last four this year) adds further spice, as if it were needed, to the Newlands clash, which sees these foes meeting at this phase of the premier all-domestic competition for the first time since 2009.
That year, when senior Boks from both teams were very much part of the action, the visitors edged a thriller 21-19, Morne Steyn goaling the seventh of his penalties from a challenging angle in the 77th minute to make the key difference after Fijian powerhouse wing Sireli Naqelevuki had been blown up for an indiscretion.
The Bulls went on to win the cup by seeing off the Cheetahs 36-24 in the final.
But the balance of power has altered a great deal in 2014, with the hot favourites to contest the showpiece remaining Province and the second-placed Golden Lions; the last-named team also have the benefit of a home semi (14:30) when they tackle the Sharks.
That said, few could confidently deny that both the Bulls and Sharks have a puncher’s chance of upsetting the form book on the entirely fitting and enticing semis bill.
As suggested by Sport24 after the penultimate round of ordinary-season play last weekend, the pecking order on the table then looked unlikely to be altered a week later ... and that is precisely what occurred.
Once the Lions had remorselessly thumped a limp Cheetahs side 47-7 in the earliest of the Saturday fixtures, the next two games, a little disappointingly, had nothing at stake for any of the other confirmed semi-finalists as log positions were already nailed down.
Clear-cut round-robin winners Province had already made their intentions very clear, earlier in the week, by resting all but one or two “first-teamers” for the Newlands visit from the Sharks, who similarly entered the game aware (albeit in their case only for a few minutes ahead of kick-off) that third was their finishing berth whether they liked it or not.
Under the circumstances, the coastal derby still produced a decent spectacle for an extraordinarily healthy crowd of around 27,000, with the WP greenhorns cheekily running out into a 20-8 lead at one stage.
But a much more gnarly Sharks outfit, still featuring around a dozen internationals despite the absence of various contracted Boks, kept their composure admirably to seize an iron grip up front - especially at scrum and lineout time - and eventually win 28-20.
Their pack is unlikely to get such an easy ride in the scrums against the Lions, who always fancy themselves in that department, although locks Marco Wentzel and Stephan Lewies dished out a reminder of the aerial threat they could pose for the Sharks in the “Big Smoke” semi-final.
Golden Lions v Sharks, Ellis Park, 14:30
Western Province v Blue Bulls, Newlands, 17:00
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