Handré Pollard inspires Leicester to Champions Cup win against Stormers

<span>Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

It is a lopsided rugby world when a leading South African province has to travel up to Europe with a below‑strength side in the depths of December to play an English club bolstered significantly by a couple of Springbok World Cup winners. The chances of Handré Pollard sending his compatriots home empty-handed always felt pretty high and, sure enough, 20 points from their high-profile fly‑half was enough to secure a valuable bonus-point victory for the hosts.

The coup de grace was slightly delayed, however, as an initially under-par Leicester flirted with potential embarrassment before Pollard’s haul and a couple of tries from the powerful centre Solomone Kata tipped the contest towards the Tigers. It was not until Pollard converted his own 74th‑minute try to put his side 30-23 ahead that normal service looked like being restored, with the winger Josh Bassett sliding over for the crucial fourth try in the final minute.

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The spirited Stormers could at least take pride from their performance in adversity. This was supposed to be a home banker with John Dobson, the Stormers head coach, even admitting before kick-off he “felt bad” about picking a depleted team for the opening game of a supposedly prestigious competition. Manie Libbok, Damian Willemse, Joseph Dweba, Evan Roos and Warrick Gelant, among others, were all missing with the visitors due to host La Rochelle back in Cape Town this weekend.

It is clearly not the greatest look for the tournament, even so, when the South African teams cannot send over their best personnel for fixtures of this nature. Dobson called it “a pity” afterwards and believes the existing situation – “We must bring our best teams … it’s so important for us in South Africa” – needs to be adjusted. Pollard, despite this result, fully concurs. “If we’re going to have them in the competition we need to try and accommodate them a bit better,” he said.

In a competition of slim margins, it leaves the Stormers with precious little margin for error in a daunting pool while Leicester will also have to up their game after a complacent first‑half display which prompted some strong words from their head coach, Dan McKellar, at half‑time. Even England’s Freddie Steward had an occasionally wobbly day beneath the high ball while Hanro Liebenberg was also guilty of butchering a clear try-creating chance which allowed the Stormers to stay in the contest.

It was no surprise when the visitors scored their opening try, the powerful Keke Morabe driving through Pollard from close range, and were handed another gift just before half-time. Ben Youngs got into a tangle at the base of a scrum, the ball was hacked 25 metres towards the home line and the nippy visiting scrum-half Paul de Wet popped the ball off the deck for Courtnall Skosan, previously of Northampton, to touch down.

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Leicester were rather more effective when they kept things simple, most notably when Stormers messed up their exit strategy to concede a five‑metre scrum and Jasper Wiese fed the charging Kata for the game’s opening try after just 13 minutes. They also still had Pollard, rapidly becoming a favourite son in these parts. After a certain amount of time it no longer matters from where someone hails, a fact of life reinforced by the joke on the latest edition of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, recorded in Leicester, about the city’s National Space Centre being twinned with the National Pork Pie Museum in Cape Canaveral.

The 29-year-old Pollard may still be learning to differentiate his cobs from his bread rolls but having helped the Tigers to rack up three recent Premiership wins he was spot on again here when it mattered. He converted Kata’s second try six minutes into the second half, a fine team effort involving a couple of eye-catching offloads, and scored a try of his own in the left corner after a costly yellow card for Lee-Marvin Mazibuko had given the hosts a numerical advantage.

Previously a drop-goal and a long penalty from the Stormers’ willowy young fly-half Jurie Matthee had twice dragged the visitors back level in the second half and their enthusiasm on both sides of the ball belied their poor away form in the early stages of the United Rugby Championship this year. While Bassett’s final try denied them a losing bonus point, Dobson was suitably grateful for his players’ effort levels before heading to the airport.

“It’s great that we fought,” he said. “If we got rolled over 44-3, then everyone would say South Africans are doing damage to the competition. Hopefully we did justice to it, but I don’t want to do this again.”