Port Elizabeth - Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer knows he is asking a lot from 20-year old rising star Handré Pollard.
After all, South Africa’s brightest rugby prodigy has just returned from New Zealand on Sunday, and immediately joined the Boks later that evening as he was elevated into the Bok squad, the supersport.com website reports.
Now, eight days after leading the Junior Boks at the IRB Junior World Championship final, Pollard will take centre stage when the Springboks run on to the field at the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium, fitting in at flyhalf and getting the opportunity he has dreamt of his entire life.
Eight days after being crowned as the world’s best junior player by the International Rugby Board, Pollard will find himself with ball in hand in a Test match as he leap-frogged squad members Johan Goosen and Marnitz Boshoff into the starting line-up, at the same time he was struggling with overcoming jetlag.
Goosen’s dodgy knee injury has become self-defeating for the youngster, while Pollard it seems, was always in the pecking order ahead of Boshoff when he was sent along with the juniors to New Zealand.
And now, while he has not spent more than a few training hours with the team, Pollard will be expected to direct its course, take control and carve himself a place in the team.
It may be expecting a lot from a youngster, but then again, Pollard isn’t any youngster. The maturity and drive shown by the 20-year old is so much that it wouldn’t be surprising to see him as a future Bok captain, or even the starting flyhalf at next year’s Rugby World Cup.
That being said, those things are a lifetime away for the former Paarl Gymnasium star, who had his first taste of the big time when he won the IRB Junior World Championship while still at school in 2012.
Meyer admits he is asking a lot of the young player, but believes if he is to become one of the greats, he has to be given a taste of test rugby sooner rather than later.
“It is a big, big ask of him,” Meyer admitted.
“We did sit down and discuss it with him, and I thought long and hard about this. He has played a lot of rugby lately and has just flown back into the country. But I always believe that my ten must show the way, he is the general and he must take charge. I don’t think there is a better test match than this to put him in and let him play.
“I wouldn’t have put him in there if I didn’t think he was up to it. As a schoolboy, I went to Dawie and said to him he is good enough to play for the SA under-20s and he won that tournament for them. “He has always excelled. I’ve always believed the great 10s and the great players are the same - the more pressure they get the more they excel. I believe Handré is a player like that, I know him quite well and I know his attributes as a leader.
“He has character, he is one of those guys who can go places. I just thought rather than put him on the bench and then bring him on, and you’re not sure, rather start with him and see what he can add to the team. I have a lot of confidence in him, he adapted well at training. He has Jan (Serfontein) on his inside as well, who is 21 years old and Fourie is on his inside - the best scrumhalf in the world and I want to see what he can add with Fourie at 9.”
Goosen’s knee troubles have been the latest in a list of setbacks for the Free Stater, and if he was fit he would have surely started against Scotland. But with a big money contract in France waiting, the flyhalf seems to be overly cautious about his knee, and this may well haunt him later on.
“Johan Goosen got injured two weeks ago, he has really recovered well but there is a question mark whether he can go for 80 minutes. We’re expecting a tough test match, and he would be the obvious choice, but we don’t want to take chances with a guy who isn’t 100 percent fit,” Meyer said.
“I thought this tournament is the right type of tournament to get Johan Goosen going because we have a high regard for him as well. The medical team couldn’t tell me if he is 100% fit and can last for 80 minutes, so it opens the door for Handré
“It was just a question of time, I always knew Handré would play for the Boks since I saw him at the age of 16. I think he will bring some different dynamics to the team, he’s a good defender, he’s a great attacking 10 as well and this is a great opportunity for him to show he can go to the World Cup and stay in the squad.”
Despite all the concern over the short time, Meyer has at least succeeded in getting the SA under-20s to run the same plays in their training, as part of their game plan, so the moves won’t be foreign to Pollard when he gets on the field, even though the personnel may be new.
And as Meyer agrees, the youthful exuberance plays a major part as well in the energy levels.
“The one thing I’ve seen with young players, and especially those here at the camp, although they are inexperienced, they bring the excitement. It was just great to see a youngster flying in, even with jetlag and all he wants to do is try and play. That’s the great thing about youth.
“I gave him a chance in the first training session and he took it brilliantly. I think the thing we are getting right in this country is that we adapt certain playing styles across the age levels.
“A lot of the calls are the same as at under-20 level, it means a lot. Our coaching team and the mobi-unit has been involved with both teams. It just shows you the benefits now, most of the calls are the same and the moves are the same - it made a huge difference in my selection of him.”
Perhaps it would be unfair to judge the flyhalf by the way he plays on Saturday, and there may be those who have concerns that it may be pushing him too hard too early. After all, he isn’t even the starting flyhalf at the Vodacom Bulls, where he plays his Super Rugby.
But Meyer has a knack of getting the best out of players, and has successfully identified young stars before.
On Saturday Pollard has an unbelievable opportunity, with the whole country hoping the bold decision is a success.
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Victor Matfield (captain), 4 Lood de Jager, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Coenie Oosthuizen
Substitutes: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Stephan Lewies, 20 Oupa Mohoje, 21 Francois Hougaard, 22 Marnitz Boshoff, 23 Zane Kirchner