Handre Pollard says he is so grateful to have returned to fitness in time to face the British & Irish Lions after worrying at one point that he “might not be ready” in time.
In the latest SA Rugby magazine, Pollard chats at length about clearing physical hurdles and slaying mental demons throughout his career. He remembers the injuries that forced him to miss most of the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Last September, the World Cup-winning flyhalf tore his anterior-cruciate ligament while on duty for French club Montpellier. As he left the field on a stretcher, everybody with a passing interest in the Lions tour to South Africa wondered if the incident was a watershed moment.
Would Pollard bounce back in time to face the Lions? The man himself pondered the same question during the rehabilitation process.
“I went back to South Africa for the op, and spent the next three to four months doing rehab with the Springbok physiotherapist and conditioning coach. I touched base with Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber while I was there – not to talk about tactics for the Lions series, but to speak about my injury and my availability,” says Pollard.
“It can be touch and go when you get big injuries like this. There was a point where we thought I might not be ready. I’m glad that it’s all gone well, though, and I’ve managed to get back on to the field.”
Pollard recalls his comeback game for Montpellier in early May. Despite his history with injuries, and despite his importance in the context of the Lions series, he threw his body into contact as if there were no tomorrow.
“When you’ve been through these injuries and recovery periods, you know what to expect on your return,” he adds. “You get back on to the field and make some good contributions, but also some mistakes. That’s OK. I’ve learned to savour those good and bad moments, because when you’re coming back, they’re all part of the same process.”
Pollard was backed to play – albeit from the bench – when Montpellier progressed to the European Challenge Cup playoffs. He was faced with another setback ahead of the final against Leicester.
“After the semi-final, I found out that I had a small tear in my calf,” he says. “You come to expect these small niggles. You can’t let it get you down. Fortunately, there were a couple of weeks between the semi and the final, and I was back in time for the decider.
“It can be frustrating to be sidelined over and over, but I’ve learned that you have to keep the big picture in mind.”
As he explains, the Boks may benefit from his appearance – and his success – in yet another final. Montpellier outlasted Leicester to win 18-17 to lift the trophy.
“I came back from injury at a time when Montpellier were sitting at the lower end of the Top 14 table,” he says. “We advanced in the European Challenge Cup, and found ourselves in the final.
“It was a high-intensity environment. Everything was on the line. I enjoy that kind of challenge. There was a noticeable lift in the final itself. In a way, that’s great preparation for what I might experience across the Lions series.”
Some believe that the Boks will go into the series undercooked and overhyped, despite their status as world champions and World Rugby’s No 1-ranked team.
“People have had a lot to say about us,’ Pollard observes with a chuckle. “That’s fine. Maybe, when you look at the fact that we haven’t played in over a year, those critics have a point. That said, nothing’s changed in terms of what we believe and what we know we can do. Our objective is clear. This kind of criticism doesn’t faze us.”
*The full interview with Pollard can be found in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine.