Cape Town – For all of the first 65 minutes of Saturday’s World Cup final, it looked for all money as if it would be decided by a placekicking shootout between the Springboks’ Handre Pollard and Owen Farrell of England.
That would not have been an uncustomary hallmark, historically, in the RWC showpiece – especially bearing in mind that both of South Africa’s earlier two Webb Ellis Cup triumphs (1995 and 2007) had come after try-less finals, even if the first-named one had included three dropped goals, two to Joel Stransky and one to Andrew Mehrtens.
But with the Boks commendably amassing ball-in-hand conviction – already 18-12 to the good through Pollard’s crisp “tee” work – Makazole Mapimpi cracked the game open with his thrilling 66th-minute dot-down, followed not long afterwards by Cheslin Kolbe’s solo-inspired cherry on top in the eventual 32-12 outcome.
That sparklingly productive little period for the Boks took away all likelihood that the coolness (or otherwise) of Pollard and Farrell would be the decisive feature of the Yokohama showpiece.
By then, though, the SA pivot had already got his pot-shots-at-the-posts act commendably into top gear after a hesitant start, in which he had seen drift wide to the right a normally quite routine effort by his standards within the first minute of the game.
In itself, the way Pollard flipped his fortunes in the department from then onward was a tribute to his ever-booming maturity and composure in pressure-cooker situations.
The former Bulls flyhalf, now snapped up by Montpellier, only failed with one further attempt off the tee – and that a tricky one from within his own half – in his next nine, if you include the two successful conversions that accompanied his six penalty strikes.
Had it been necessary, there is mounting evidence to suggest that if the final HAD come down to a vital kick, and Pollard entrusted with it, he would probably have banged it over despite the weight of mental pressure.
Still only 25, which will seem remarkable to those who have followed his already so generous first-class career, the Paarl Gym product keeps on issuing reminders that he thrives on the most taxing, red-letter situations within Test matches.
Proof of that comes just in examining his success rate at the posts in the two biggest matches for the Boks at the World Cup: 8/10 in the final, 5/5 in the semi, for a rosy combined accuracy percentage of 86.66.
In the tighter, more tense game against Wales, remember, it was deadlocked at 16-16 when Pollard was presented with a 44-metre, angled penalty opportunity to probably put the game to bed in the advanced, 75th minute: and duly did so with a crisp and confident strike.
Imagine if he had fluffed it? It might just have been the get-out-jail key the Welsh needed to come back with their own last-ditch charge to steal the spoils for themselves … and then we wouldn’t be excitedly discussing right now the looming open-top bus parades around the country by the Boks.
But that wasn’t the first instance this season of Pollard vitally coming to the fore in placekicking terms when it really matters: he had also done so with the decisive, match-ending conversion of Herschel Jantjies’s dramatic Rugby Championship try in the 16-16 drawn tussle with New Zealand in Wellington.
It was from some way out, yet the ace marksman could hardly have done the job with more accuracy and self-belief.
Pollard continually demonstrating these nerves of steel on the very highest stages seems to only suggest one thing: come the next World Cup in France in 2023 (when he won’t be 30 yet) and he is even less likely to let the cause down when push comes to shove.
Does a constantly mounting, ice-cool demeanour - and associated success rate - at critical moments ever leave you?
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