Beware: There’ll be more ‘Pollards’

2016-02-10 13:00
Handre Pollard (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Sadly these days, any keynote South African-based player opting to boost his earnings significantly with stints in Japanese rugby has to be considered a “good result”.

Rather that, at the end of the day, than the star being coaxed away to the alternative overseas riches in Europe or Britain, which automatically signals his non-availability for Super Rugby with a domestic franchise and effective goodbye to the country’s first-class scene.

By representing a Japanese club during the local summer, however, he is usually still available afterwards for the lion’s share of activity in the recently-expanded SANZAAR competition.

Yet it is almost impossible not to suspect that the dagger-through-the-heart setback to the Bulls early this week – young flyhalf ace Handre Pollard suffering torn knee ligaments in training and probably being ruled out for the whole of 2016 – has at least some link to the physical and mental foolhardiness of South African players spurning a proper off-season.

Pollard picking up the injury in a “freak” manner (he was apparently nowhere near any contact) during a Pretoria practice cannot be attributed directly to his recent prior obligations with the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, of course.

But it does not take reams of medical research or the often sobering words of sports scientists to be able to work out that a man who played Super Rugby, a Rugby Championship, a World Cup and then spent some three months in Japan before going straight into a new rugby year in the southern hemisphere is going to be extra vulnerable to breakdown, in whatever manner it may eventually come.

This is certainly not intended as a specific rant against Pollard.

It has become the increasing vogue -- and it makes almost irresistible financial sense considering the frail rand -- for various Springboks or at least decent Super Rugby-standard customers to spend their supposed break period on Japanese duty instead of tossing Frisbees in soft beach sand back home or taking invigorating swims in the sea or rivers to recharge in every way for the next campaign.

But it is also probably the first time in South African rugby history that players are prepared to consciously, dangerously jettison an off-season altogether.

There is an argument that Japanese domestic rugby is considerably less punishing on the body and that the general commitment to a ball-in-hand approach when conditions are kind there makes it less likely that players will pick up excessive bumps and bruises or suffer more serious mishaps.

But the Asian country is also luring more and more big, powerful specimens from the southern hemisphere rugby landscape – not just South Africans – so the “honeymoon” may be closer to an end in that regard anyway.

In addition, it has been a reasonably obvious characteristic over the past few years that players returning from Japan and being shoved straight into the Super Rugby frying pan take a bit of time to readjust to its more intense rigours ... perhaps also being acutely aware deep down that they haven’t given their bodies enough downtime?

When the Stormers used to restore flyhalf Peter Grant to their plans soon after the competition began, for example, he would occasionally require several weeks to get properly back into the groove, and the same could arguably be said for someone like the Sharks’ stalwart wing JP Pietersen.

There are notably more players now having to make the swift transition than previously, and you just wonder how abrasive forwards like Eben Etzebeth and Marcell Coetzee are going to cope with an elongated Super Rugby season straight off Japanese chores.

Without wishing to put some sort of jinx on anyone, I can’t help wondering if there will be further “Pollards” – or read, long-time casualties – over the course of the next few months, partly due to pure overuse and the potentially expensive consequences.

It is an awful shame that the sturdily-built No 10, who turns 22 next month, is now going to miss a pivotal year in his development, with the Bulls intent on employing a brighter, more expansive battle-plan and his game-controlling attributes tailor-made to that.

But it does open the door, especially taking close Bok rival Pat Lambie’s shorter-duration (hopefully) absence into account, for reasonably out-in-the-cold pivots like the Lions’ Elton Jantjies and Racing Metro-based Johan Goosen to claw their way back closer to green-and-gold honours in mid-year.

They are still only 25 and 23 respectively, and have proven multi-layered skills, albeit in their slightly differing ways.

On good days Jantjies just looks an absolute natural in the berth, whilst the hitherto injury-bedevilled Goosen, with his booming boot, is similarly very far from a spent force in terms of Test possibilities.

Morne Steyn was the “third flyhalf” in the Boks’ RWC 2015 squad under now-departed Heyneke Meyer’s charge, but it is hard to imagine the French-based 31-year-old veteran, solid but predictable, being deemed a key element of a future coach’s vision for the national side.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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