The Springboks have placed enormous faith in young flyhalf Handre Pollard to start in the pivot position in their opening Rugby Championship match against Argentina at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, but coach Heyneke Meyer believes the 20-year-old has already earned such trust.
Pollard retains his berth as the starting flyhalf after his impressive debut against Scotland at the end of June, relegating veteran Morne Steyn to the bench. Meyer must have been tempted to go with the experience of Steyn, especially since Damian de Allende will be making his debut in midfield, and Ruan Pienaar, Bryan Habana and Jean de Villiers are all coming off extended absences from the field of play.
But there’s no doubting the Springbok coach’s high regard for Pollard.
“Handre is only 20, but he’s very mature and he has an experienced head on his shoulders. I’ve seen him playing since he was 15 and he has always impressed me as an unbelievable prospect.
“He’s one of the few flyhalves to have both a brilliant attacking game and a tactical game. You don’t find that a lot, the name Dan Carter springs to mind, most flyhalves have one or the other,” Meyer said on Wednesday.
“It’s a tough position and a flyhalf must have leadership qualities as well because the players must trust him. They expect him to stay cool and calm and make the right decisions and they must want to give him the ball.
“Handre is also big and tall for a flyhalf and most teams now attack in the 10/12 channel, but he’s big enough to knock back guys, even big forwards. There are no grey areas in his game and I believe a lot in him.”
While the likes of Juan de Jongh and S’Bura Sithole have both surely done enough to warrant consideration at outside centre, Meyer has backed what he sees as De Allende’s potential in the number 13 jersey.
The 23-year-old is yet to play outside centre in SuperRugby, but he played there at school and had one Currie Cup outing in that position for Western Province against the Blue Bulls last year.
He certainly has the attributes to make a success of his new-found role, being big, strong and quick, while also having fine hands.
“I was really impressed with Damian in SuperRugby. I always look at players when they are playing away in tough conditions and I like his mental toughness.
“He’s a big guy but he’s skilful as well, he has the soft touches, runs beautiful lines and gets the ball away. I think he can bring another dimension to our backline and I feel he can be superb at 13,” Meyer said.
The other notable feature of the Springbok team announced on Wednesday was Lood de Jager shifting from number four to number five lock, to replace the injured Victor Matfield.
South Africa’s most-capped player has stayed with the squad to lend his considerable wisdom to De Jager, and Meyer is confident that the 21-year-old can make another step in his meteoric rise and run the lineouts.
“It wasn’t that easy to select at number five, but Lood is intelligent enough to run the lineout and, even though he’s been a typical number four, I’ve always felt that we could groom him at five.
“He’s one of the most improved players I’ve worked with and he has an unbelievable future. Eben Etzebeth can also play five, but he hasn’t played for a while, plus Lood is very good outside of the lineouts as well,” Meyer said.
Bakkies Botha will make his first Rugby Championship start since 2011 alongside De Jager, with Etzebeth as cover on the bench.
Tendai Mtawarira starts at loosehead prop, to extend the South African record with Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis as a front-row trio to 17 Tests.
Jan Serfontein, after his excellent performances in the incoming Tests, will get the chance to put in a hard-hitting 20 minutes off the bench on Saturday, while Francois Hougaard is the reserve scrumhalf to Ruan Pienaar.
In the absence of Fourie du Preez, Meyer admitted that their service has to speed up in the Rugby Championship.
“I always thought Test rugby would become more of an arm-wrestle, but more tries than ever are being scored and the game is getting quicker and quicker. So all the scrumhalves in South Africa need to play at a higher tempo if we’re going to be the best. They need to up it because we need to speed up our ball. We need ball on the front foot because we have a big flyhalf and centres that attack the line.”
Meyer said Argentina would require the Springboks’ full focus on Saturday.
“It’s always tough against Argentina because they are a contesting team, they contest for the ball in every facet of the game. The scrum is always a huge contest and they’re one of the best teams at the breakdown.
“They have a new coach [Daniel Hourcade] so they’re going to play with a lot of passion and lately they’ve been moving the ball around more, so they’ll test our defence,” Meyer said.
Springbok team: 15-Willie le Roux, 14-Cornal Hendricks, 13-Damian de Allende, 12-Jean de Villiers, 11-Bryan Habana, 10-Handre Pollard, 9-Ruan Pienaar, 8-Duane Vermeulen, 7-Willem Alberts, 6-Francois Louw, 5-Lood de Jager, 4-Bakkies Botha, 3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Bismarck du Plessis, 1-Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements – 16-Adriaan Strauss, 17-Trevor Nyakane, 18-Frans Malherbe, 19-Eben Etzebeth, 20-Marcell Coetzee, 21-Francois Hougaard, 22-Morne Steyn, 23-Jan Serfontein.