An injury to hooker Malcolm Marx early in the Rugby World Cup threatened a major blow to South Africa’s hopes of retaining the title but the opportunity to call up Handre Pollard was a gamble that paid off handsomely in Saturday’s semi-final.
The 29-year-old kicked the winning penalty as the Springboks inched past England with a come-from-behind 16-15 victory to set up a final against New Zealand at the Stade de France.
Pollard, who kicked South Africa to the title at the last World Cup in Japan, was left out of the original 33-man squad after failing to prove his fitness.
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But Marx’s injury allowed the Springboks to draft him in, gambling on his recovery and admitting concern over the kicking of his replacement Manie Libbok.
Pollard got a run in the pool game against Tonga to prove his fitness and was on for the second half of the one-point win over France in last weekend’s quarter-final.
In the semi-final, with Libbok struggling with his kicking, coach Jacques Nienaber took a calculated risk and brought him on after 31 minutes.
“We needed some energy and that’s why we decided to bring on the bench early,” the Springbok coach said.
Pollard put over a penalty on after coming on as England were 12-6 up and the break and converted RG Snyman’s 69th-minute try to reduce the deficit to two points.
When South Africa won a scrum penalty two metres inside the England half with two minutes to go, the stage was set for Pollard.
He booted the ball over with aplomb to hand his side the narrowest of victories.
“Firstly the scrum penalty, that is what got us the opportunity,” said Pollard.
“It was just a credit to them, they were unbelievable, It was a big moment but it is what you want as a player on this stage, to have moments like that as a fly-half is what you live for. It was fun.”
Springbok skipper Siya Kolisi said he had no doubt it would go over. “He’s done it for us before,” Kolisi said at the post-match press conference.
Pollard has had a topsy-turvy time since his heroics in the World Cup final four years ago, kicking over six penalties and two conversions for a 22-point total in the 32-12 win over England in Yokohama.
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“It’s been an interesting four years since the last World Cup, with a lot of highs and lows with COVID-19, injuries when I was in France and then an injury before the Premiership semi-final with Leicester this year.
“And then again a lot of ups and downs in the last few months, not being selected then coming back but that’s all in the past.”