Handre Pollard: Destined to be a Bok
It shouldn't come as a surprise that South Africa's latest rugby sensation, IRB World Junior player of the year Handre Pollard, is set to make his senior international debut when he starts for the Springboks against Scotland tomorrow.
His elevation to the top tier of the sport has been a story long in the making, ever since his school days. The 20 year old Bulls flyhalf is a product of Paarl Gymnasium in the Western Cape - where his rugby career began as a junior.
Pollard first represented Western Province while at primary school which continued into his senior years, playing in the Grant Khomo and Craven Weeks for the union.
That's where he as a 15 year old caught the eye of Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, who admitted he's been an admirer of the youngster ever since.
A talismanic playmaker, with a prodigious boot, Pollard continued to progress through the age groups at provincial and national level. First with the SA schools team and then for the Junior Springbok team.
At only 18, and in his final year at school, Pollard was picked for the Junior Springbok squad for the Junior World Championship (JWC) which was hosted in South Africa in 2012.
He was selected as one of three flyhalves in the squad, along with Cheetahs and Springbok youngster Johan Goosen, who was coach Dawie Theron's first choice pivot for the competition. However, as we've become accustomed to see, Goosen picked up an injury which ruled him out of the tournament which opened up the door for Pollard.
An opportunity that he took with both hands.
Cool, calm and collected, Pollard repeated Joel Stransky's heroics of the 1995 World Cup final, by slotting a match-winning drop goal in a tense final against New Zealand to earn South Africa the JWC title for their first time in their history.
After that, everyone knew about Handre Pollard as he made his mark on the international stage.
He was the future and the prized possession of Western Province rugby... or so it seemed.
The Bulls then announced they'd managed to lure the Paarl Gym and the Junior Bok number 10 away from Newlands, with the Western Province Rugby Union unable to stand in his way and he signed a deal until 2015. It was a bitter blow for the Cape rugby public and a huge boon for the Bulls.
Meyer, with his strong links to the Blue Bulls, obviously played a significant role in convincing the youngster's father to move up north.
With the Western Province Rugby Union left to defend itself for losing the boy, Pollard continued his rise to the top of the rugby ladder, going on to represent the Junior Boks for a second year in 2013, as well for UP-Tuks in the Varsity Cup and then for the Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup.
This year, Pollard again made the SA U20 side, playing for the third consecutive year, going on to captain the team at the tournament in New Zealand.
He took the team to the brink of winning the title again, but lost out to England in the final. There was some consolation for him though, being named the IRB Junior World Player of the year for 2014.
Meyer has always said that Pollard would have been in his squad for the June tests if he hadn't been with the Junior Boks, so it came as no surprise when he was called up for this weekend's final Test against Scotland.
"If you look at the best flyhalves in the World, they all started at 19, 20, 21. He's very mature for his age. I've got a lot of confidence in him and I can't wait to see him get going," says Meyer.
Meyer adds that Pollard is more than ready for Test rugby, and aptly chose the low-key Scotland Test to introduce him to the big stage.
"I don't think there's a better test match than this to put him in the deep end. I wouldn't have put him in there if I didn't think he was up to it. He's always excelled and I've always believed great 10s are great players - the bigger the pressure the better they get."
Rafiq Wagiet is an EWN sports reporter based in Cape Town.