South African Under-20 captain Handré Pollard has been thrown in at the deep end, but Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer believes he will pass the Test with flying colours.
Meyer, who waxed lyrical about the prodigiously talented flyhalf, made it clear it is in Pollard’s hands to prove the faith shown in him is justified.
“I have been following him since he was 16, [and played] at the Grant Khomo week,” Meyer told a media briefing – after announcing a team that features Pollard, the starting flyhalf, as one of five uncapped players for Saturday’s one-off Test Scotland in Port Elizabeth.
In total, the Springbok starting team shows six changes from the side which beat Wales by 31-30 in Nelspruit last weekend.
“He would have been part of this [senior Bok] squad if it wasn’t for his commitments at the South African Under-20 side,” the Bok coach said of the 20-year-old’s selection, adding: “We felt it would be a great opportunity for him to lead his country as an U20 player.
“He was always in the mix and we want to see what he can bring to the table.”
Meyer pointed out that three flyhalves – first-choice Morné Steyn, Johan Goosen and Patrick Lambie – are either injured or not available.
“I feel he [Pollard] is a special player and he has brilliant touches on the ball,” the Bok mentor said, adding that he is also big, strong and a great kicker of the ball.
“I just felt this is the type of Test match where we can look to see what he can do.
“If you look at the best flyhalves, they all started [their Test careers] at 19- or 20-years of age. And he is very mature for his age.
“We have a lot of confidence in him and I can’t wait to see him play.”
Meyer said Pollard will bring different dynamics to the team.
“He is a great defender, he is a great attacking No.10 and he can kick as well.
“This is a great opportunity to show that he is good enough to go to the World Cup [next year] and to stay in the team.”
Meyer admitted it is a “big ask”, given that Pollard has played a lot of games recently and has only been back in the country a few days – following his stand-out performance in New Zealand, where he was named the IRB’s Junior World Championship Player of the Year.
Meyer said that after chatting to the young flyhalf and thinking long and hard about it, he still felt now is the right time to introduce Pollard to the Test-match arena.
“I always believe my No.10 is a guy who must show a lot of character,” the Bok coach said, adding: “He is the general that must control play.
“I don’t think there is a better Test than this [against Scotland] to throw him in at the deep end. I would not have selected him if I did not believe he was up to it.”
Meyer explained that two years ago, when Pollard was still at school, he convinced Baby Bok coach Dawie Theron to select the youngster for the SA U20 team that won the IRB JWC in Cape Town.
The Bok coach said Pollard has “always excelled” and that all great flyhalves will stand out when under pressure.
“I believe Handré is a player like that,” he said, adding: “I know his attributes as a leader, having captained the Under-20 team, but [it is] more about his character.”
With Jan Serfontein (also just 21) on his outside, it will fall on veteran World Cup-winning scrumhalf Fourie du Preez to guide the youngster through the pitfalls of a Test debut.
“What you see with these young players, even though they are inexperienced, they bring a lot of excitement.”
Meyer took a swipe at some of his critics, who keeps suggesting he has a team of geriatrics.
“People may not believe it, but I have introduced youth [into the Boks squad] and there are a lot of young players around.”
He also said the one thing they are getting right in South Africa at the moment is that they have adapted similar playing styles with the Under-20 and senior teams.
“A lot of the [Springbok] calls are the same as the U20s and that help,” he said of Pollard having to make the step up to senior level.
“A lot of the calls and plays are the same, so that played a huge role in my selection.”