World champions South Africa are “desperate” to play in the Rugby Championship this year but there remain a number of hurdles before they will commit to the competition, according to director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.
Recently, we have seen Handre Pollard develop into one of the world’s best flyhalves, and his role for the Boks has been both in fielding kicks and the kicking-and-passing game, as well as some carrying game.
South Africa play with two defensive fullbacks in the field – Pollard and Willie Le Roux. They rotate between the two of them to field kicks and restart the play from the kicks.
This is exceptionally prominent against Italy in the World Cup. Le Roux fields the ball with Pollard alongside him, boots the ball high, Pollard chases. Although that play failed with Tommaso Allan still winning the high-ball contest, it looked like how they were using their defensive fullbacks. Have him field the ball deep, and then he can go to the skies and the boot from there.
There was a prominent example in the opening moments of their clash with England to claim the Holy Grail of rugby. After England play some phases and later boot it back, Pollard fields the ball somewhere midway in the pitch. He runs a bit, before booting the ball high to the skies and sprinting after it. His straight line and momentum allowed him to leap for the ball and beat George Ford in the contest.
The scrummage is for penalties, dominating with the world’s best pack on the globe, to earn penalties for their metronome to smash through the uprights. This is the reason behind his 22-point haul against England.
Then we have an attacking game in both carrying and passing that Pollard is absolutely integral to, whatever haters like Ben Smith would say.
When Pollard is on the pitch, he often stands behind the strike phase. Faf de Klerk is the main passer for the forwards, while Pollard is more of a back line distributor and playmaker.
South Africa have three primary playmakers: Pollard, Le Roux and De Klerk.
As he stands behind the strike phase, it opens up an option for a pass from behind the strike phase and then with Pollard to fire it out to the back line organised alongside him. He often plays several phases standing behind the strike phase, readying the Springboks’ attacking line.
If South Africa cannot thin the line enough, he slots back into position and calls for a kick. When the line is thinned, the edge of the defence then fires the ball away to release a player and cause a line break.
Set play distributor
In their set-piece back line tries, it often comes up with a hard first-phase carry from Damian de Allende, with Pollard and Le Roux organising out-the-back options for further assaults on the opposition defence.
Against Japan in the pre-World Cup match, we have this being very prominent. One try came off Handre Pollard taking the ball from behind De Allende, firing it flat and far to Le Roux, who gives the final pass to release Makazole Mapimpi to score.
In another of Mapimpi’s tries, we have Pollard take it from behind a forward strike play before sending it through the hands of Le Roux and other teammates before Pieter-Steph du Toit throws the final pass on the edge to Mapimpi, drawing up space for Mapimpi to tear up trees and score.
When it comes to creating space, the job falls between Pollard and Le Roux. Sometimes, Pollard does the job by himself. He slots in at first receiver, flings the ball over the heads and into the arms of the winger. This sometimes causes line breaks for the Boks and always a territorial gain.
Le Roux has sometimes slotted in at first receiver to drop off releasing passes to test the line and thin out the defenders on the fat side. Also, most prominently against Wales, he was throwing multiple long and flat passes out wide to thin the defence.
Hard carrying game
Although the line maintains its structure, Pollard goes himself. He cannonballs his 98-kilogram frame into the bodies of defenders, and sometimes scores tries and often gets past the line with gain-line successes.
Pollard, Le Roux and De Klerk were banging kicks to keep the Springboks going forwards and pressurising the defenders.
For an example, against Wales, Faf de Klerk box-kicked the ball high, which was fielded by Leigh Halfpenny. The fullback was smashed by Siya Kolisi. Wales played through several more phases, before booting it back. Each phase, the South Africans pinned them further back. Finally, with the ball booted back, Pollard fields the ball in exactly the same spot that Halfpenny did.
We have other occasions that Pollard’s kicks went a little too deep and ended up with uncontested catches and the awarding of free kicks. However, the main intent is for South Africa to keep the opposition pinned back, and he has kicked well for the Boks territorially, often dropping into the pocket to signal for a kick.
If this game play using Pollard continues against opponents in future Test matches, it would certainly be something to look out for.