Rassie Erasmus's memorable two years as head coach of the Springboks between 2018 and 2019 were characterised by one important factor: the virtually constant availability to the cause of his comfortably top-rated flyhalf Handre Pollard.
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The sturdily-built, then-Bulls pivot had largely put prior injury hassles behind him through the period, which culminated in the fabulous World Cup triumph in Japan, before Erasmus opted for a full-time switch to his director of rugby role and Jacques Nienaber was installed as new man in the “tracksuit” for 2020 and onward.
That is reflected in Pollard’s appearances during the 26-Test Erasmus reign. He started 11 and was an impact substitute in two more of the 14 assignments in 2018, as the Boks gradually built a head of steam, and then made the starting XV in a further eight of 12 Tests in total during stellar 2019 (largely sitting out dates against obvious minnows at RWC, or matches where Erasmus deliberately experimented and chose to cotton-wool key assets).
That still means he was involved, in at least some way, in 22 Bok matches over the two years ... or almost 85 percent.
Now 26 and Montpellier-based, Pollard’s potential had already been acknowledged by an earlier Bok mastermind, Heyneke Meyer, who blooded him in June 2014 as a raw 20-year-old against Scotland in Port Elizabeth and had long made him his primary pick in the vital slot by the time the Boks were nudged out of the 2015 World Cup in the semis by a New Zealand team at the peak of its powers.
Meyer’s ill-fated successor, Allister Coetzee, ended up getting much less value out of Pollard, due in no small part to a freak setback for the player in the pre-season of 2016.
In a non-contact session as the Bulls sharpened for Super Rugby that year, Pollard went down in a heap, rather out of the blue, having torn the dreaded “ACL” in a knee.
His coach at the time, Nollis Marais, ruefully told reporters: “There was nobody within five metres when he pulled up … it was a normal passing drill.”
But it meant that Pollard’s entire year was a write-off, with 2017 marked mostly by a gradual, sometimes tentative return to best service.
Touch wood, his medical luck has turned greatly for the better in more recent times ... but what if the current Boks suddenly found themselves without him for an extended period, once Test rugby is able to kick in again after the coronavirus disruption?
During Erasmus’s tenure, Lions stalwart (and now captain) Elton Jantjies has generally been viewed as next in line, although in a 37-cap career spanning some eight years he has continued- with some glowing exceptions - to look a more commanding figure at Super Rugby than Test level.
That fits in with the theory that his range of skills is better suited to the less conservative demands of rugby at franchise level, and more particularly with regard to the Lions’ fluid, ball-in-hand playing style that served them so well in successive years between 2016 and 2018 where they reached the final.
Even in the Johannesburg-based team’s poor start to 2020 with a painstakingly rebuilding squad, Jantjies has maintained his own standards quite admirably, cutting a confident and composed figure at ten.
But if Pollard were to be side-lined, whether Jantjies would be the right alternative fit for the Bok template, specifically, remains open to question.
Although his defence has been plucky this season, he is significantly more slight and shorter in build than Pollard (1.76m and 87kg versus 1.88m and almost 100kg) and less inclined to receive the ball flat, where a flyhalf potentially runs into heavy, bruising traffic.
There is also very little doubt that Pollard is better geared for overall game management needs on heavier pitches or in foul weather.
So if he were to be unavailable, the Bok brains trust might have to take a horses-for-courses approach before deciding that Jantjies is the appropriate fit in his place.
Remember also that if Jantjies plays and is partnered with Faf de Klerk at scrumhalf with Willie le Roux at fullback, there is an imbalance of three left-footed kickers in vital tactical slots.
Considering the mediocre start to 2020 by wunderkind Damian Willemse of the Stormers, he doesn’t instantly shape as a secure Bok option at pivot if an important Test - or series - were to be played very shortly.
The gifted Curwin Bosch, meanwhile, has a thumping boot and an array of other, silky attributes, but substantial doubts about his defence linger.
The closest, most prominent current South African flyhalf in physical style to Pollard is probably former Sharks No 10 Robert du Preez, now based in England with Sale ... but there were still some noticeable rough edges to his game when he left these shores.
So if Jantjies were to suddenly be given the nod for an extended spell in the position for his country, perhaps the best way to balance the backline as a whole would be to field Frans Steyn right next to him as a “second flyhalf” in the inside centre channel, where his great muscularity and enormous right-footed boot would come in very useful indeed.
That would be a bit like the policy sometimes adopted by England, the RWC 2019 runners-up, when George Ford is wanted at No 10 and no-frills captain Owen Farrell operates at twelve.
Veteran globetrotter Steyn, soon to be turning out for the Cheetahs in a welcome development back on home soil, clearly seems committed to being available for the headline series against the British and Irish Lions next year, and his ongoing utility value will be enormous to the Boks.
A snag over his possible call-up to the No 12 jersey, though, is the current form of proven-calibre inside centre Damian de Allende, the incumbent who got better and better as the World Cup developed, and the Sharks’ Andre Esterhuizen, who was terrific in the first few weeks of the suspended Super Rugby season.
A continued clean bill of health for Handre Pollard at flyhalf seems the best medicine for the world champions in the foreseeable future ...
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