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Rookie playmaker Pollard is the key to new breed of sprightly Springboks

By Tony Ward

Think of the Springboks and what comes most immediately to mind?

Big, strong, powerful, uncompromising, brutish. Since time immemorial, South Africa have been perceived as the bully boys of world rugby and have traded on that perception successfully.

Alas, for those of us so privileged (something of a misnomer that) to be on the receiving end of a South African masterclass in why they are what they are, suffice to say the tags, however cliched, are well earned.

Like it or lump it, you cannot but respect it, and that in itself will be the Irish starting point today.

But for Joe Schmidt, Les Kiss and the rest of the Irish 'think tank', the arrival of Heyneke Meyer's new-age Boks presents something of a dilemma.

The tried and trusted formula is still there (and for sure it ain't broke) but what we have now - primarily due to those wearing 10, 11, 14 and 15 - is a Springbok team geared to run and, more worryingly, set up to play accordingly.

There has been no sea change in philosophy, just sensible coaching application - building a plan of action around the skill-set of your players and not vice versa.

The South Africans might not like admitting it, but New Zealand have set the standard for all others to follow.

Beating the world champions in Johannesburg when last the sides met just over a month ago hasn't made Meyer's side number one just yet, but they are close - much closer than many might believe.

The key to their hopes, I feel, is rookie out-half Handre Pollard and his hugely influential role as playmaker in chief to a still strong, still powerful, still uncompromising and still brutish side moving in a newly expanded but measured direction.

And lest anyone might misunderstand, this is not Rob Penney Munster brain transplant stuff. No cultural shift just a very noticeable development in emphasis but one based primarily on players.

As the pragmatic Kiss put it: "Pollard has given them more reliability about how they get the ball into the second and third channel, but he can also challenge that front line. He's more of a carrier as well, so you have to stay really bolted on in that front line as well."

One man does not make a team but when you are as big, as strong, as talented and as confident as the most recent IRB Junior Player of the Year, then the sky's the limit. Add in natural kicking, running and passing games and the only obvious issue still to be nailed conclusively is temperament.

Here too ,I suspect, we may be clutching at straws as the composure he has shown in his international appearances to date - including a 19-point haul in that 27-25 victory over the All Blacks -suggests conclusively that he is the real deal.

A full-blooded first Test in this part of the world plus the uncompromising force that is Johnny Sexton in his face - and no doubt ears - makes for a new challenge in uncharted waters. But I reckon he can handle it.

If Pollard is the new spark at No 10, then Willie le Roux is the new sorcerer further out. I love this guy's fearless style.

But lest we stray too far from reality, South Africa's new-found sense of adventure is built upon what transpires between the Beast at No 1 (Tendai Mtawarira) and No 8 Duane Vermeulen. It is an awesome-looking South African pack, with bench back-up that includes Bakkies Botha and Schalk Burger.

Ian Madigan's absence apart, I like the side Schmidt has chosen but I don't envy him his task. Again, he has exercised great common sense in selection. Whether or not Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne hit it off we will be much better informed shortly, but it is difficult to dispute the logic of "going with what (combination) we had the most time to prepare with" .

In addition, as he so rightly argues "is there ever going to be a perfect time?" and "unless you provide opportunity, you're never going to know".

Today's conundrum, however, is much more complex than that. I hope I am not scaremongering but I do fear the worst if Le Roux and Co hit their straps. To that add the 'B' factor with Botha and Burger on the bench and you get my drift.

That said, despite all the injuries there is a nice shape and balance to the Irish side. Take Ireland to give it their all but South Africa to make it three Dublin wins on the bounce.

Belfast Telegraph


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