Will Montpellier get the best out of Pollard?
OPINION: Ben Smith explains why Handre Pollard’s departure from South Africa will see him realise his true potential.
The announcement confirming Bulls flyhalf Handre Pollard has signed a three-year deal with Top 14 club Montpellier brings to an end a 6-year career in South Africa.
While his Springbok career will continue, his domestic career will not, ending his time at the Bulls for the foreseeable future.
For a long time, Pollard symbolised the hope of South Africa’s next generation.
As a member of three Under-20 World Championships, a fresh-faced Pollard piloted the Junior Boks to a maiden Under-20 title in front of a home crowd in 2012.
The Western Cape junior slotted a 45-metre drop-goal to push his side out to a 4-point lead at Newlands before a Jan Serfontein try sent the crowd into raptures with a defining 22-16 victory over New Zealand.
The Junior Boks would go on to win four straight under-20 fixtures over New Zealand during Pollard’s three campaigns, including a pool stage win and a semi-final win over New Zealand in the Baby Blacks’ own backyard in 2014.
Often such a young player at the beginning of his career remains relatively unknown outside of his own country, but Pollard was a rare exception and certainly had caught the attention of rugby fans in New Zealand after becoming the leader of a side that consistently tormented the Baby Blacks.
Thoughts were forming that this flyhalf could become the greatest Springbok 10 ever seen. As ridiculous as that assertion could be, there were things about Pollard’s game that aren’t typically found in South African flyhalves that appealed to the New Zealand public who were wowed by his under-20 showings.
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He showed the kind of creativity and vision that special playmakers possess, the ability to see opportunities others can’t, the confidence to take them and the skills to make it happen.
The kind of talent that is certainly revered and held in high-regard in New Zealand, which sees the likes of Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie and Richie Mo’unga as highly valued assets where other countries fear their risk-taking tendencies.
He was thrust into Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks side as a 20-year-old and immediately took to test rugby as the anointed 10 during the Rugby Championship. In his sixth test, and first on home soil against the All Blacks, he scored two tries taking on the line without fear.
His first try was scored gliding through Joe Moody and Sam Whitelock using speed to beat the prop on the outside while his second was a charge directly at Aaron Smith pressuring Richie McCaw’s inside cover off a wheeled scrum. He barreled over in the arms of the All Black legend.
The Springboks secured a 27-25 win on a long-range Pat Lambie penalty, which ended a 22-match winning streak for the All Blacks and propelled Pollard to stardom. He became central to the Springboks 2015 World Cup plans and came within a whisker from a World Cup final.
Since that rocket-fuelled start, this World Cup cycle hasn’t seen Pollard’s career continue that trajectory.
South African rugby has undergone structural changes with transformation targets and a disastrous fall under Alistair Coetzee. His career stalled in 2016 with a long-term injury layoff, while the Bulls tried to re-build under the guidance of John Mitchell’s corporate management-style leadership in 2018.
At the same time, the game changed with improved levels of conditioning tightening up defences, forcing attacking play to become far more detailed and organised to create space, foreign to the traditional Springbok way.
South African and Australian rugby got left behind to some extent, with both countries experiencing dramatic falls in the world rankings. The Springboks last win over the All Blacks before last year’s thriller in Wellington was that tight 2014 finish in Johannesburg.
Pollard’s ability is unquestionable but he is not heading to Montpellier as the finished product. South African rugby has failed to unlock Pollard’s full potential since the last World Cup. The only title-winning coach he has had time under was a brief dalliance at the Springboks with the architect of the first Bulls dynasty, Heyneke Meyer, from 2014-15.
With Rassie Erasmus’ grand changes to selection policy, Pollard is not lost to the Springboks.
However, the next phase of his development will be overseen by a French club that will certainly demand a return on their investment, a different kind of pressure Pollard will face. The resources at Montpellier are far better than those at the Bulls, but the club is also going through struggles.
They finished third on the league table in 2017 and first overall in 2018 before being eventual runners-up but this year dropped to seventh in Top 14 and failed to qualify for next year’s Champions Cup.
They lost attack coach Scott Wisemantel to England’s staff before this season while head coach Vern Cotter has now been moved into an oversight role as a Director of Rugby with La Rochelle’s assistant coach Xavier Garbajosa coming in as his replacement on a four-year contract. Aaron Cruden also remains contracted for another season as well as Johan Goosen, which seems like an overcrowded positional group as it stands.
Although Pollard’s new environment may have some degree of uncertainty, the change of scenery will perhaps also see him grow off the pitch, offering a different perspective on the game and life outside of South Africa. The success of overseas-based players like Faf de Klerk, Willie le Roux and Cheslin Kolbe proves that Europe can elevate the play of South African players.
The current conversation for the world’s best 10 includes Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga, Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell. If Pollard is to realise his potential and be in that conversation by the next World Cup, he needs to go somewhere different. With a number of other Springbok departures confirmed for the Bulls, staying would only bring more frustration as a complete re-build of the roster is required.
Time will tell whether Montpellier is the right destination, but the change is necessary even if it hurts the Bulls and their fans to see him go.