‘That’s the only way’ – Springbok duo open up on the possibility of another Rugby World Cup and the value of overseas-based players

Alex Spink
Split with Springboks, Andre Esterhuizen and Handre Pollard.

Split with Springboks, Andre Esterhuizen and Handre Pollard.

Handre Pollard and Andre Esterhuizen have revealed their Springbok ambitions for the next World Cup cycle – and delivered a no-nonsense verdict on the merits of playing outside South Africa.

A season which saw each collect World Cup winners’ medals in France ended in England on Saturday with Leicester and Harlequins failing to reach the end of season Premiership play-offs.

Both will be approaching 35 years of age when South Africa bids for an unprecedented third successive Webb Ellis Cup triumph in Australia in 2027, placing a major question mark over their ability to stay the course.

Step by step

Pollard, who kicked the Boks to glory in Paris despite not initially being selected due to injury, acknowledges it is a big ask to get to his fourth World Cup.

“There’s so much time, and rugby to be played, between now and then,” he admitted to Planet Rugby. “If you look too far forward you’re going to stumble over the hurdles right in front of you.

“You’ve got to stay fit and you’ve got to keep playing well, that’s the only way you’re going to be involved. But, listen, it’s definitely a goal to work towards – for sure it’s the bigger goal for me to try to get there.”

Springboks still the goal

While Pollard has one more year on his Tigers contract, Esterhuizen has played his final game for Harlequins and is returning home to rejoin the Sharks.

Unlike his compatriot, the barnstorming centre has no doubt he can get to the next global tournament – and says he can’t wait to stake his claim in front of Rassie Erasmus and his-look new coaching group.

“I still want to play international rugby,” Esterhuizen said emphatically. “Although I’ve just turned 30 it feels like I’ve only just started, really getting into the mix of things.

“I think I have a good few more years left in me. I’d love to push and play in the next World Cup. That’s the top goal for me.”

The power of the Premiership

Esterhuizen is in no doubt his four-year spell in English club rugby has transformed him as a player and makes a powerful case for others leaving behind home comforts to expand their horizons.

“I’ve learned so much from playing here, playing a different style, playing with world class players,” he said. “Lining up alongside Danny Care and Marcus Smith has really helped me grow, both in rugby and life.”

The debate rages in English rugby over whether Red Rose-qualified players should be allowed to ply their trade overseas. The Rugby Football Union is adamant they should not.

But Esterhuizen said: “For me, a change of scenery is always a good thing. It is so valuable getting to know the players from other international sides. How they play, what are their trends?

“You can then bring that back, so if South Africa is playing, say, England I know exactly what Marcus or Danny is going to do and I can share that with my team.

“All teams analyse each other but if you know someone personally you’ll know exactly what they’ll do under pressure, what they like and don’t like.

“In a World Cup every per cent helps, however small it might seem. Obviously that insight has worked well and helped South Africa in the past couple of tournaments.”

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Contrast the modern day trend of worldly wise, globetrotting Springboks with the situation Naas Botha encountered when he led South Africa out of isolation in 1992.

“There was no experience of touring,” he wrote in the Save & Prosper Rugby Union Who’s Who. “At home we only set out on a Friday night and arrived back by Sunday morning. Suddenly the guys were being asked to come away for seven or eight weeks.

“It took about a quarter of the (France) tour for some of them to get into stride. It was a totally new experience. The beds were new, the hotels were new, the people, the food, even the language, were all new.

“For these guys, used to the staple South African diet of meat on the grill and potatoes, it was a problem. Given the chance we headed straight for the nearest McDonalds.”

How times have changed, with Springbok stars sprinkled liberally across the leagues in the UK, France, Italy and Japan.

Pollard concedes that this season has been challenging and that the World Cup took an “immense” amount out of him emotionally.

“But it’s what we do,” he said. “We are professional sportsmen, we crack on.”

Good memories at Twickenham

The Springboks come to London next month to play their first Test since the World Cup final against Wales at Twickenham on June 22, before returning home to take on Six Nations champions Ireland over two eagerly-awaited weekends.

“Firstly, Twickenham is a very special place for us,” said the fly-half. “It’s an unbelievable, unreal stadium to play in and we have a lot of good memories there, as well as a few bad ones!

“It’s just one of those cathedrals of world rugby you really enjoy playing at. And with all the South Africans living in London and the UK we tend to get a lot of support which we are really thankful for.

“As for the Ireland series, we all absolutely want to be a part of that. Ireland is unreal at the moment, a team playing extraordinary rugby, but they’re coming over to our home turf.

“They’re going to be very tough games, it’s going to be war. They’ve got our number the last few times, we haven’t beaten them in quite a while. It’s one we’re really looking forward to.”

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