The EPCR launch, the rugby media’s version of speed dating, 24 players, one from each of the competing teams in the Heineken Champions Cup, subjected to whistle-stop, communal confabs, ostensibly to elicit soundbites for a tournament that begins on Friday week. It proves more fulfilling in terms of content.
Handre Pollard unfurls his frame into a chair and is immediately surrounded. The South African World Cup-winning outhalf has managed one match for the Leicester Tigers, whom he joined in the summer, and is currently out injured, unlikely to return before the new year.
The 28-year-old is thoughtful and forthcoming on a variety of topics, including the Springboks’ victory over England, Steve Borthwick as a coach at Leicester and his potential suitability for the England position should Eddie Jones not survive the English RFU review.
In the current coaching climate where Wales head coach Wayne Pivac and Jones are under increasing pressure following a disappointing Autumn Nations Series for both countries, Pollard provided an interesting insight into how long it took for Rassie Erasmus to return home from Munster and transform South Africa from beaten dockets – they had suffered record defeats to New Zealand and Ireland – to world champions.
Pollard explained: “We felt his impact immediately, by the personality he is and the way he does stuff, but in terms of rugby and on the field, he said with our new defensive system ‘18 games, that’s what it’ll take’. He knew that’s how long we had before the World Cup.
“It probably clicked a little earlier than 18 games, but I would say it took us a good year to find ourselves, really understand each other, knowing where we stood with each other, and then in 2019 we really kicked off with results, as you could see: 2018 was up and down when we were trying to find our feet. It took about a year I’d say.”
The 2023 World Cup in France is in less than 10 months. Pollard conceded: “It’s a difficult one. It’s tough because basically the Europeans have the Six Nations and a couple of warm-up games. It’s not a lot of time, so it will be tough. I’m not sure if it’s possible. But you never know.”
Talk of the global tournament facilitated an inquiry about what he made of Ireland’s narrow recent victory over the Springboks. Pollard said: “They (Ireland) are the number one team in the world. That is what it is, and they have shown it. I just think for us as a team, playing away from home with key players missing and still almost getting a result is big for us and we take a lot of positives out of that.
“Yes, it is not a result, but if you look at the bigger picture this tour was a very positive tour for us, and it has been a long international season for us. Our boys were tired, they have been travelling all around the world for four, five months now. There is no break in our international season, so for us I think it was a great end of year tour, not the results, but in general.”
The next time the countries meet is in the third match in the pool match at the Stade de France on September 23rd next year. Pollard continued: “It is large. It is always going to be big, but it is not the end of the world if you don’t win it. You can still go through like we did three years ago.
“Either way, you are going to find France or New Zealand in the quarter-finals and I don’t know who you want to play between them. It will be a large game and you want to go into the playoffs with momentum, but it is not the end of the world [if you lose that pool match].
Pollard paid a warm tribute to the Springboks’ backs coach, Felix Jones, Sandycove’s finest rugby export. The former Ireland fullback is a popular figure in the South African set-up. “He’s (Jones) world class; he’s a workaholic, that guy, never stops.
“That is one thing I have never seen in my life. I have seen coaches work hard [but] I have never seen something like that guy. He is just obsessed with the game, he loves it. It was really nice to get a northern hemisphere sort of flavour into our coaching team and team because it is so tactically sound.
“For us, we don’t get coached that way in South Africa from a young age, so to get that in was really nice, and I really enjoyed working with him. He is world class.”
In terms of the Champions Cup, Pollard has no doubt that the South African public are in for a pleasant surprise. “They will get a taste for it this year and probably by next season they will be like ‘okay, this is the ultimate club competition in the world’. So, yeah, hopefully some of the South African teams can do well this season.”