Cape Town – Working towards Handre Pollard, their experienced presence in the vital flyhalf channel, recapturing his best form will be an important part of the week-and-a-half leadup from here to the Springboks’ RWC 2019 quarter-final.
Highly likely to be playing either Ireland or Japan at Tokyo Stadium on October 20 – unless New Zealand sensationally crash to Italy in their pool-closer on Saturday and the Boks find themselves in the October 19 last-eight slot instead – Rassie Erasmus’s charges have gradually been fine-tuning their act in a three-game winning run against modest group opponents.
One slightly surprising missing link, if you like, at the tournament so far has been the 45-cap Pollard, playing in his second World Cup but yet to show the sort of authority at the event that had been consistently forthcoming from him ahead of it this year.
He entered the tournament on the back of a trio of inspiring showings at No 10: against New Zealand in Wellington (the fighting 16-16 draw), the Rugby Championship-clinching 46-13 trampling of Argentina in Salta – one of his best Test matches yet – and then the 41-7 Test win over Japan immediately ahead of RWC.
But by his high standards, his two starts in the premier jamboree thus far – the 23-13 reverse to the All Blacks, and 49-3 victory over Italy – have seen him perform patchily, possibly affecting fluency at times in the berths outside him.
Without looking noticeably as if his confidence has taken a knock, Pollard has mixed occasionally sublime touches with unexpected sloppiness in his play on both those occasions.
He – and others in the camp – may still be quietly ruing his pretty close-range penalty miss in the first quarter against the defending champions at Yokohama (the sort of kick he would normally goal in his sleep) at a time when the Boks were gaining a promising foothold.
Instead the All Blacks surged back to nail 17 points (including two tries) in the damaging next 10 minutes, a passage that would ultimately be proved the one that put the game to bed in the champions’ favour.
Pollard has also had some issues with missed touches and fumbles – through who hasn’t had a bit of the latter phenomenon in the challenging humidity? – and generally given the impression of being just a touch off his A-game.
But those well disposed toward him will probably be prepared to venture with some firmness that a more “rounded” game from the former Bulls favourite is just around the corner … and if so, presenting itself at a perfect juncture in the World Cup.
It was a rare event for Pollard to underwhelm against New Zealand: historically he has often reserved his most incisive personal showings – win, lose or draw -- for Tests against them, something that shouldn’t be dismissed from minds as a second meeting at the World Cup, right at the climax, stays reasonably firmly among the KO-phase scenarios.
For all those trumpeting Elton Jantjies’ crisp showing against Canada (and why not, it was perhaps the best Bok pivot showing of RWC to this point?) it is worth remembering that he may fall into the category of other “fringe” players to have impressed Erasmus in a less pressured pool fixture but not necessarily be catapulted into the starting elite.
Bear in mind also that the silky-touch Jantjies had been well less than imperious against Namibia in his earlier opportunity at No 10.
Pollard and Jantjies differ considerably in playing style, and it is highly unlikely that the Bok mastermind is suddenly going to make the switch to the less direct, physically more modest Lions player for a World Cup quarter-final, even if many would welcome an opportunity for him to return to the substitutes department – potentially allowing Pollard to shift to inside centre some time in the second half of a crunch encounter as has happened with success before.
The first-choice flyhalf interestingly played around 20 minutes of the Canada game on Tuesday in the midfield berth, where his distributive skills came into play a couple of times.
It may just be a sign that a return to his renowned peak required only the tapping down of the proverbial nail or two …
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