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Handré Pollard. Picture: SHAUN ROY/BACKPAGEPIX
Handré Pollard. Picture: SHAUN ROY/BACKPAGEPIX

There were no signs of distress or alarm when the Springbok brains trust announced Handré Pollard’s continued absence from the team due to a calf injury.

Pollard, they announced earlier this week, will miss the Rugby Championship (RC) and is only expected to return to the playing field in one of the three Rugby World Cup (RWC) warm-up Tests against Argentina, Wales and New Zealand.

They tried their best to exude a calm demeanour but there may be a little angst at Pollard’s 11th-hour return before the RWC. Already captain Siya Kolisi is on that late-late train.

Apart from complete battle readiness for the RWC for Pollard, there are also more immediate concerns.

His confirmed absence leaves the Springboks a goal kicker light, with Manie Libbok now very much the go-to man in lining up kicks, while Elton Jantjies’ return from the cold gives them some relief.

While the Boks have generally done well to avert a crisis in the goal kicking department over the past few years, they were caught agonisingly short when they lost 19-16 to Ireland in Dublin in November 2022.

Damian Willemse and Cheslin Kolbe raised the flags with a penalty each but it is a Test the Boks could have won with greater accuracy off the tee.

Libbok made his debut against France the next week and the Boks had little concern when they took aim at goal for the rest of the tour.

Valuable players

His form for the Stormers on the balance of the season has largely been superb.

In Pollard’s absence he could be one of the team’s most valuable players in the RC.

The Bok coaches have stressed that they don’t want to rush Pollard back too soon. A miscalculation on that front would be catastrophic.

“That’s why we go Elton [Jantjies]” has become a popular refrain.

With Pollard out of the picture for now and Willemse only just returning from injury the Bok coaches have much to ponder. They have already made it clear they will play different squads for the opening two Rugby Championship Tests against the Wallabies and the All Blacks.

It can be reasonably assumed the more experienced Boks will do duty against the All Blacks, while the team to take on the Wallabies may have an element of mixing and matching. The last time they have had to fly east across the Indian Ocean in between matches one week apart the two-squad strategy got the job done in 2019.

Jantjies then did duty at Ellis Park before Pollard was deployed in Wellington against the All Blacks.

This time Libbok is likely to be handed the No 10 jersey with Jantjies as backup for the Test on the highveld. Willemse may well form part of the advance party that will travel to New Zealand in the middle of next week in preparation for the All Blacks Test.

The Bok brains trust are of course entirely capable of throwing a curve ball. Playing Jantjies off the bench against the All Blacks as they successfully did in 2018 when they won in Wellington, may be a rabbit-pulling act they want to reprise.

In that Test Jantjies came on in the 47th minute as substitute for Damian de Allende, with Pollard shifting to inside centre. He helped create a try for Aphiwe Dyantyi in the 56th minute that was the Springboks’ last score but it was enough to see them home.

It wasn’t just the way in which he set up that try but it was perhaps the composure Jantjies showed when the All Blacks tried to deliver a rearguard action that helped the Boks win the day.

The point, however, has also been stressed that when Jantjies was recalled to the squad it was on the basis of him being fourth in the flyhalf queue.

From a goal-kicking perspective Libbok’s accuracy is an asset the Boks had better have on tap, at least until Pollard returns.

Having him absent from the squad for as long as he has been in the build-up to the RWC is far from ideal. His longest break from the Boks since he made his debut in 2014 was post a World Cup and not before as is the case now.

He was out of the Bok team from October 2015 when he played in the third-place play-off at the World Cup to September 2017 when he came on as a substitute in the Springboks’ 57-0 defeat to the All Blacks in Albany.

His return to the squad this time was expected to be against the All Blacks, but Bok fans will have to hold their collective breath a little longer.

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