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Springbok Pollard versus Tigers Pollard

Three drunk blokes on the train from Leicester to London don’t represent the views of all Tigers’ supporters.

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However, their shared opinion of the team’s World Cup-winning flyhalf, Handre Pollard, after his 14 points from the tee helped earn a 40-22 win over Exeter Chiefs, opened an interesting subplot.

Drunk Bloke #1: “He’s obviously brilliant at times.”

Drunk Bloke #2: “But he seems to make a few mistakes every game and he’s not exactly the most creative flyhalf.”

Drunk Bloke #3: “He’s much better suited to the Springboks way of playing.”

With South Africa, Pollard has won two World Cups and established himself as one of the most important Test flyhalves in the history of the sport.

His clutch goal-kicking, his steady hand under pressure and his physicality mean he is a perfectly shaped cog in the Springboks machine.

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But it’s not just the pragmatic components of his game that seem to operate at a higher efficiency when he’s wearing the bottle green of the Boks.

Since the start of 2020, Pollard has more off-loads per game and more break assists per game for his country than his two teams – Montpellier and Leicester – in that time.

The comedian and cricket statistician Andy Zaltzman said: “Statistics are like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Shove your hand far enough up them, you can make them say whatever you want.”

With that in mind, the twisting of variables to suit a narrative should be regarded with some scepticism.

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However, when assessing certain metrics of some key Springboks over the past four years, a notable pattern emerges.

Steven Kitshoff has made more carries per game, more dominant tackles per game and won more turnovers per game when playing for South Africa than he has managed for either Ulster or the Stormers since 2020.

In that time, Frans Malherbe has had better gainline success for South Africa than the Stormers.

Eben Etzebeth has better gainline success, attracts the attention of more than one tackler with greater frequency, and makes more tackles per game when playing for South Africa compared to his time with Toulon and the Sharks.

Willie le Roux has more try assists for the Springboks per game than he does for Verblitz or the Bulls.

Pieter-Steph du Toit’s tackle evasion, gainline success and line breaks are better for his domestic team than for his country.

Damian de Allende, despite playing in Japan, makes almost three times as many dominant tackles when wearing the Springbok on his chest.

But the player with the greatest statistical disparities is the man who, for six years, has been the embodiment of the Springboks dream.

Siya Kolisi is one of the most accomplished loose forwards in the Test arena.

He can carry into heavy traffic, he’s a threat over the ball and he provides options on attack wide in the trams. He has a superb work rate and a handy off-load game. In short, he’d make just about any match-day 23 at a World Cup.

I wonder if even his most die-hard supporters could say the same about his contributions at domestic level.

There’s a cliche in sports that some players require a particular jersey to perform at their best. Kolisi’s showings for the Stormers, Sharks and Racing 92 have breathed life into the adage.

Tries scored, tries assisted, tackle evasion success, gainline success, attracting more than one tackler when carrying, tackles made, tackle success, dominant tackles, turnovers won, attacking rucks hit, attacking ruck efficiency, defensive rucks hit; across all these markers, Kolisi has better numbers for the Boks than any of the three teams he has represented over the past four years.

How can this be? The Test game is supposed to be more difficult.

Even supposedly weaker opposition are stacked with a country’s best available talent. The level of scrutiny is greater and the stakes are that much higher. What could explain this twist in logic?

An answer might lie in the stats that connect all the forwards mentioned above.

Kolisi, Kitshoff, Malherbe, Etzebeth and Du Toit all hit more attacking and defensive rucks in Test rugby than they did for their respective teams over four years.

That could be a consequence of the Springboks’ strategy that requires every member of the pack to force front foot ball and offer support to both the ball carrier and tackler on the deck.

It could also be a result of the different demands for their teams.

However, maybe the answer lies beyond the GPS data and percentiles.

When Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and the rest of the Springboks coaches link their team’s on-field exploits with the hopes of a nation, they’re doing so to inspire but also to extract that little extra effort from every player.

Hitting rucks is something that any member of the squad can do.

To paraphrase the former Ireland captain, Paul O’Connell, it’s one part of the game that requires very little talent. It’s all hard work and hunger and desire.

And on that front, arguably more than any other team in rugby, the Springboks are the top-ranked outfit.

Recently, a social media post which attracted around 75 thousand views, ranked the Premiership’s top 10 flyhalves of the season.

Pollard, the only No.10 in the competition with a World Cup crown, was eighth.

Fin Smith, Owen Farrell, Finn Russell, George Ford and Marcus Smith were all above him.

The many reposts and comments below the line quibbled over the top five, but all were firmly of the opinion that Pollard has been nowhere near their level.

This is the same Pollard that was shunted out to No.12 at Montpellier by Italy’s Paolo Garbisi.

This is the same Pollard that felt surplus to South Africa’s requirements in early 2023 when Manie Libbok was pulling strings at first receiver.

This is the same Pollard who never looked like missing a goal-kick as he hoofed the Boks to a fourth world title.

It is said that some players require a particular jersey to perform at their best.

When they’re wearing bottle green, they often perform better than most.

@RugbyPass

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