Cape Town – The timing of Handre Pollard’s return to fitness after missing the entire 2016 season could hardly be better.
It was confirmed from the Bulls camp a few days ago that the 22-year-old flyhalf will attend the franchise’s camp in George in a fortnight and is equally on course, as a result, to be involved from their first Super Rugby pre-season friendly in late January.
That ought to prepare the particularly game-shy pivot pretty decently to be close to full sharpness come the first match in the competition against arch-rivals the Stormers at Newlands on February 25.
Just getting Pollard back playing first-class rugby again is naturally good news from a Springbok perspective as well … but not merely because of the renewed challenge he will pose for the No 10 berth.
As Adriaan Strauss prepares to bid farewell to the troubled national team’s leadership mantle against Wales at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday -- after a rather desperate tenure in results terms, win or lose in Cardiff – Pollard suddenly looks the most clear-cut choice, by my book, to grab the reins next year.
The planets just seem to be aligning, despite his own glaring lack of rugby activity since his ruptured knee ligaments training-ground disaster (not even in contact) back in early February, for him to assume the task from June when the Boks are next in action in a three-Test home series against France.
There will certainly be a rightful clamour just for Pollard to take charge of the No 10 channel again, following a year which has seen none of Elton Jantjies, Pat Lambie or the veteran Morne Steyn assert themselves properly in the berth.
Pollard, who already boasts a tidy 20 international caps after being commendably blooded as a 20-year-old by Heyneke Meyer against Scotland during the 2014 campaign, offers the directness and physical qualities lacking in the others, apart from his array of foot and hand skills and a nice little penchant for excelling in an attack sense against the All Blacks.
If the Boks want someone to come right out of the proverbial pocket, a hallmark which so often stymies offensive intentions, then the 1.88m, 97kg Pollard is the readymade customer for it.
A bit like Dan Carter and others, he is also one of those flyhalves who could fit very seamlessly into the inside centre role if necessary.
But I would suggest that his likely catapulting back into the Test side in June – assuming he has looked sufficiently rejuvenated in the dozen games the Bulls will have played by the time the traditional Test window comes along – looks ever more likely to be accompanied by the cares of leadership.
Hardly a Test rookie and already more than proven at the highest level, which is obviously a string to his bow, Pollard would also offer outstanding potential to “grow” into Test captaincy with plenty of time to spare before the next World Cup in Japan (2019) – he would be appealingly close to his personal rugby prime then, aged 25.
Pollard is already, and should continue to blossom as, a genuine game-manager and astute thinker, and there is no special reason to fear for his abilities or confidence in the public relations and media departments either.
That is at least partly because the former Paarl Gym wunderkind had a beneficial stint as skipper of the SA under-20 side in 2014, when he steered them to the final of the Junior World Championship where they lost by one point to England.
The foremost alternative candidates to Pollard, to grab the Strauss baton, probably remain Warren Whiteley, Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw and Lambie.
But being foreign-based is an impediment to both Vermeulen and Louw, whilst the former may not have done himself any additional favours in the eyes of the SARU hierarchy with some strident words, at least for an active player, recently lamenting woes at all levels in South African rugby.
Both loose forwards are also the wrong side of 30 already.
As for Whiteley, his natural, so evident leadership talents at Super Rugby level are hardly in question, but does he command an automatic enough ticket to the Bok No 8 jersey?
That’s where things look too vague, albeit that his own form has probably suffered – in a generous nine starts this year – through the more widespread Bok impotence.
Although he is a cerebral player with some brilliant touches, can Whiteley really “mix it” in a thunderous, bone-crunching international in the manner the rugged All Black captain Kieran Read and Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip thrillingly did against each other in Dublin on Saturday?
Dare I say it to any Jo’burgers, he seems better suited, in some respects, as an impact player at Test level.
Lambie, the popular Sharks skipper, has notably struggled to reach known best levels in late season, seemingly still fighting off the effects of his horrible concussion against Ireland several months ago.
If he comes back more assertive again in the new year, the man who led the Bok cause against the Barbarians at Wembley will certainly also return to candidacy both as No 10 and green-and-gold skipper.
Yet this has probably been a good year, frankly, NOT to be playing for the Springboks.
Handre Pollard is ideally poised to cash in, offering a strong element of refreshment to the cause in a variety of senses in 2017.
He’s my now-comfortable favourite for the skipper’s job.
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