Handré Pollard is back in training and ready to take his place in the No. 10 Springbok jersey for Saturday’s first Test against the British and Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium.
The World Cup winning flyhalf sparked a bit of panic among Bok supporters when he tested positive for Covid and was considered a doubtful starter for the start of the eagerly awaited iconic series against the Home Union composite team.
However, Pollard first precipitated a collective sigh of relief among South African fans when he was spotted in the stands when the South Africa A side played the Lions in Cape Town on Saturday, and then he followed up by confirming his availability to play during an online press conference on Monday.
“I am feeling really good. Luckily although I tested positive, I had no symptoms. For me it was the 10 days of quarantine I had to get through,” said the Bok vice-captain.
“I am ready to go and am really eager to get going. You can feel that it is nearly here now. Walking into the team room you just feel a different vibe. There is a bit of tension in the room now, which is good. Everyone is ready and it is time to get going now. We just want to get stuck into these three matches.”
The reason that Pollard’s readiness for the first Test would have sparked such a collective sigh of relief among Bok fans, is because of the extra options he brings in comparison to Morné Steyn, who played for SA A in their win over the Lions last Wednesday.
The Bok preparation has been disrupted by the positive Covid tests, which at one point numbered as many as 14 among the players. Coupled with the fact that before that the Boks hadn’t played as a team for 20 months due to the pandemic before they broke their isolation with a workmanlike, rusty win over Georgia, you’d imagine the Boks must be underdone and disadvantaged when coming up against a team made up of players who have played so much recent international rugby.
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But any suggestion that the Boks might be hassled by their period of inactivity and starting the series needing to play catch-up in regards to their physical conditioning draws a sharp response from Pollard.
“No ways, we are playing the British and Irish Lions and we are playing for our country. Emotionally and physically, we are all fine and ready to play and to do well. The way we train is harder than what we face in the games themselves so we will be ready for Saturday,” he promised.
‘Robust’ selection meeting
Meanwhile, the British and Irish Lions coaching staff have held a “robust” selection meeting, but defence coach Steve Tandy says there are just a few decisions still to be made ahead of the first Test against South Africa in Cape Town on Saturday.
With only flyhalf Finn Russell set to miss the series opener due to injury, head coach Warren Gatland has a near full-strength squad to choose from and Tandy admitted there was fierce debate in a meeting that lasted more than an hour-and-a-half.
“It is one of the toughest things I have been involved in, so many players put their hands up, there will be massive decisions made and a lot of unlucky players,” Tandy told reporters on Monday.
“We had the initial selection meeting last night and it was a long one in fairness. There was robust discussion, but now there are just one or two things to confirm. It is mostly done.
“There will be bitter disappointment for some players, but everyone will be geared up to win the first Test and those not playing will support the team.”
Tandy described tour captain Alun Wyn Jones as “fit and raring to go” after the lock came through 30 minutes unscathed in the 49-3 victory over the Stormers on Saturday, which followed his dislocated shoulder three weeks ago.
“Alun does some pretty special things. He keeps himself in great shape, so there will be no issues with that. His form coming into the tour from the Six Nations was really pleasing, and he has those leadership qualities.
“He brings energy in training and just generally around the environment.”
Tandy said Saturday’s first Test could be crucial in deciding the series given the psychological boost it would give the winners.
“The opening match is massive, you get the feeling within the group how big it is, you want to get on the front foot,” he said. “We know how important the start of the series is. It is exciting and nervy at the same time, because the Lions tour is defined by winning the series.”