A flyhalf that is one in a million always had the midas touch to become a rugby great.
Handré Pollard is the highest paid player in world rugby – and rightly so.
Pollard is a player who sparkled as a teenager and because of his youthful brilliance, his senior achievements have always seemed underwhelming because they have been so expected.
Former Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer identified Pollard as a World Cup-winning flyhalf when he first saw him play as a 15-year-old for Western Province’s Under-16s, and Meyer was the inspiration to Pollard’s selection for the baby Springboks who won the 2012 Under-20 World Championship.
Pollard was still in matric at Paarl Gymnasium and Meyer encouraged baby Springboks coach Dawie Theron to break with tradition and select Pollard. No schools’ player had ever been picked and, post Pollard’s selection, no schoolboy has ever been picked again.
Pollard would excel in the final at Newlands, Cape Town and be decisive with the boot as South Africa beat New Zealand to take the title.
It was the start of things to come for a young man, who would captain Western Province Schools, South African Schools, South African Under-20s and be confirmed as the best Under-21 player in the world in 2014. He would also make his Springbok Test debut at 21-years-old against Scotland and a few months later destroy the All Blacks at Ellis Park, Johannesburg with two tries and 19 points in a 62-minute dazzling display.
Pollard, at 21 years old, would kick five pressure penalties in the 2015 World Cup semi-final against the All Blacks at Twickenham, but come second to a masterclass from All Blacks veteran Dan Carter.
Rugby had always come easy to Pollard, whose father André had captained Paarl Gymnasium in 1978. Rugby was in his DNA and physically Pollard was an imposing presence in a No 10 jersey. He stood at 6ft 2 and weighed 100 kilograms. His athleticism complemented a natural physical presence and one of his strengths was an ability to play close to the gain line, to take the ball into the tackle and to make tackles.
Meyer, pre the 2019 World Cup, described Pollard as the best defensive flyhalf in the game and a player who in time could match New Zealand’s Carter in international achievement.
Carter, Meyer would often tell me, had no comparison among Test flyhalves. Meyer rated Carter the complete package and felt that Pollard could similarly evolve and become the most sought-after signature in the game.
Pollard hasn’t disappointed his former coach, who predicted the Springboks would win the 2019 World Cup if a fit and conditioned Pollard was wearing 10.
Pollard did wear 10 in Japan and his pressure penalty with 10 minutes to go in the semi-final emphasized his temperament to deliver when it mattered most. Wales had fought back to 16-all and had the momentum. Penalty: South Africa, and it was a kick that had to go over if the Springboks were to arrest the Welsh momentum. Pollard, as acute as the angle was, nailed it.
His 22-point performance in the final was Carter-like in how he dictated play. His forwards beat up England and, with front-foot ball, Pollard kept the Springboks on the front foot all evening.
Few realized he had played the final quarter with a fractured eye socket. It typified his resolve and his ruggedness. He didn’t shirk responsibility and he certainly didn’t hold back in the tackle.
Montpellier had struck gold in getting Pollard to leave the Bulls.
Pollard, financially, had also played a winning lotto ticket against England in the 2019 World Cup final.
Yet it could all have been so different because of a shoulder injury, a knee ligament tear and a shoulder operation that went horribly wrong.
Pollard, in 2016 and 2017, spent more time in hospital than he did on a rugby field and at one stage feared his arm would be amputated because of an infection post a shoulder operation.
“It was touch and go,” said Pollard when describing his nightmare and fears to the media.
He said the potential loss of his arm and the realization of how his career could be ended so abruptly gave him the life perspective that may have been lacking in a young man, whose rugby life had always had the midas touch.
The 2019 World Cup-winning coach Rassie Erasmus, early in his Springbok coaching tenure in 2018, told me that he never doubted Pollard’s pedigree but he initially questioned the player’s desire to be the best player in the world.
Erasmus challenged the player on his philosophy and attitude towards rugby. The coach wanted to know if Pollard played the game because he found it so easy or if he played the game because he loved the game.
Pollard would answer those questions on the field, with consistency and impact. He played the game because he loved it, but he also was of that rare elite breed that found it particularly easy.
The great flyhalf generals control the pace of the game and dictate tempo. Pollard is among those great flyhalves.
The two-year absence from rugby in 2016 and 2017 damaged Pollard’s confidence. By his own admission, it was the first time in his life that he questioned if his body could do what his mind always computed.
The only way back was the hard way through consistent game time. His mind, always strong, was even stronger because of his off-field triumph to get back on a rugby field. His body, when just 23 years-old, had the battle scars of one 10 years older.
Pollard persisted with playing every possible match in 2018, and while initially inconsistent, the mediocrity would turn to magic. According to SA Rugby Magazine, he played 1,157 minutes from a possible 1,280 for the Bulls in Super Rugby and 997 from 1,200 minutes for the Springboks and Barbarians.
His knee, his shoulder and his body, started 2019 as strong as his mind. Pollard, at 25, was once again ready to conquer the world.
“I picked him in 2015 because I felt we could win the World Cup with him at No 10. It didn’t matter that he was just 21. He was always good enough,” said Meyer.
But if Meyer took a boy to rugby’s biggest bullfight in 2015, Erasmus took a man to the same fight four years later – a man that when the tournament was over was the most valued player in the world.