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Bok coach Nienaber sets record straight on Pollard debate

Handré Pollard during the Springboks' Rugby World Cup pool B match against Ireland at Stade de France in Paris on Saturday.
Handré Pollard during the Springboks' Rugby World Cup pool B match against Ireland at Stade de France in Paris on Saturday.
Image: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

Though Handré Pollard is back in the Springbok team after a 13-month absence, coach Jacques Nienaber was quick to temper expectations of what the flyhalf might deliver on his return against Tonga on Sunday.

Nienaber explained Pollard is not the panacea to the Bok ills, especially in the goal-kicking department, and the coach went to some length to lay bare all the elements that should shape the flyhalf debate. He argued the position and its component parts can only be discussed as a package.

Asked what his kickers' pecking order will be for the game against Tonga, Nienaber initially said: “Handré is starting, so he'll kick goals,” before being prompted about the backup in the starting line-up with Manie Libbok on the bench.

“That's a good question, and I am going to spend some time on this.

“So I think there are three realities that must be seen as a unit, it can't be seen separately.

“The first reality is for all to see and it's that we are not as consistent at the tee as one should hope we can be. I think in some games, we kick 100%. If you go back in history there are some Test matches where we didn't miss a kick at goal, like France in 2022, and we used three different kickers that night. But we are not consistently there.

“The second reality is the guy who is the most consistent off the tee for us is Handré — but like I mentioned, he has been injured. He didn't participate in any Test matches for us in 13 months.

“And then the third reality is that the guys who had to step up for Handré being injured and who had to take over the kicking role were Damian Willemse and Manie Libbok. In the 13 months that Handré wasn't available for the Springboks, there were 16 Test matches and we won 75% of those 16 Test matches.”

The four lost Tests in that period were two against the top-ranked team in the world, Ireland, one against France — who can also lay claim to being the best team — and one against old foes the All Blacks in Auckland, Nienaber said.

“In three of those Test matches, it was very close. Even this past one — up until the 78th minute there were two points in it. I think that's the reality.

“Yes, we are not consistent off the tee, but Handré was injured and he was, in the past, the most consistent guy off the tee. The guys who stepped in, I don't think they did a bad job, maybe off the tee, but in terms of win percentage and steering the team, and getting good results.

“And out of those 16 Test matches, only three were at home, 13 were away from home.”

The flyhalf debate has been like a bucking bronco since the Boks started losing their consistency off the kicking tee. The team's management did not help in that regard as information, especially around Pollard's injury, was carefully curated before being put in the public domain.

Mixed messaging on the subject didn't help either. It gave rise to speculation and deeply polarising debate.

Nienaber stressed expectations of Pollard should be tempered.

“Handré hasn’t played top-level club rugby since the first weekend in May. It’s about 19 weeks ago and in that 19 weeks, he’s only played 30 minutes and that was in the Premiership Cup [for Leicester Tigers against Sale Sharks] a fortnight ago.

“There’s a good possibility he probably would struggle to get through an intense game, a good probability he might cramp up.

“That’s why we went with the five-three split and have Manie [Libbok] on the bench just for cover.”

While calling on fans to be realistic about Pollard on his return, the argument can also be made that whoever they select in that crucial position should not be accompanied by fine print and disclaimers.

Sure, Pollard is rusty, but to the Bok management he is the man who helped win them the last World Cup, a Rugby Championship and a series against the British & Irish Lions. An outing against the abrasive Tonga, they hope, will be an instant rust remover.

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