Still No 1

Bryan Habana may be struggling for form, but he remains a world class player.

Bryan Habana is a genius. A flawed one, as 2008 has revealed, but a genius nonetheless. That assertion is not hyperbole nor baseless rhetoric. Thirty-one tries in 44 Tests bears testimony to this.

That strike rate puts him in the company of the finest wingers currently playing Test rugby. ‘Rocket Man’ Joe Rokocoko with 43 in 49 Tests is the most prolific in terms of strike rate, then there’s Sitiveni Sivivatu with 23 in 30 and the Welsh wizard Shane Williams with 43 in 59.

Go back further and Habana would not feel like an imposter holding court with former All Blacks hitman Jeff Wilson (50 in 60) or his countryman Doug Howlett (49 in 63).

Habana’s feats become even more notable when you bear in mind that Wilson and Howlett played the majority of their careers prior to the evolution of defensive structures which have seen the elite teams become more organised and subsequently more impenetrable than Fort Knox.

Consider also that he has played in Springbok teams that have traditionally relied more heavily on the beef in their pack to go the direct route, rather than sending the fly boys on trips down Electric Avenue.

Habana is eight tries from becoming the leading try-scorer in Springbok history. When, not if, he achieves this, he’ll knock his boyhood idol Joost van der Westhuizen from the summit. Incredibly, he’s played 45 Tests fewer than the former scrumhalf. And he has just turned 25. Frightening.

But even geniuses have periods where their mortality is exposed and it is at this point where even the most prudent observers start to question their haste in ascribing greatness to the player in question. For Habana, that time is now.

Habana has been seduced by that unsexy old dame, Mediocrity. Five tries in 469 minutes of Super Rugby and one in 494 minutes of Test rugby in 2008 bear witness to this. But Habana and Mediocrity are terrible lovers.

You see, geniuses are wired for greatness. They are excruciatingly sombre people in another state of existence. He is not used to mediocrity. Despises it in fact.

This is a kid who lost just one athletics race at primary school, ‘and that’s because me and a mate were messing around when the gun sounded for the start of the race,’ he says. ‘I still came second though.’ He scored a brace in his first-ever flirtation with rugby for King Edward VII’s U14G team. He crossed the chalk thrice against New Zealand in the U21 World Championship in 2004 with a seriously injured knee, and announced his arrival on the Test stage by scoring a try in a losing cause against England in 2004.

He finished 2005 having scored 12 tries in 12 Tests. ‘Who is this guy?’ the rugby world asked. The IRB replied by telling them he was the Best Newcomer of the Year and only an impossibly brilliant season by All Blacks pivot Dan Carter prevented them from announcing him as the Player of the Year as well. That accolade would come in 2007, when the standard of Habana’s performances had the IRB and the rest of the world asking: ‘Dan who?’

Such was Habana’s brilliance that even Carter, who is the only celestial being ever to be granted time off to return to earth to play rugby, was lost for words. ‘He was from a different planet mate,’ Carter said.

The assessment of Habana seemed simplistic, but coming from a player widely recognised as the most gifted of his generation, it was a massive compliment. But Habana has returned to planet earth with a thud. He is a shadow of the player who was the root cause of insomnia among opposition coaches, particularly at the World Cup in France. It was Habana’s World Cup.

He’d been introduced to the game for the first time at the showpiece tournament in South Africa in 1995, where he watched Joel Stransky sink the All Blacks in the final at Ellis Park from his father’s lap. Twelve years on, he dominated on the biggest stage of them all in a manner few have.

So what’s debilitating Dash?

Theories have been debated. Fatigue, injury, tactical naivety on behalf of his coaches and the tactical astuteness of opposition coaches to defuse the ballistic missile are prominent in those debates and all have a degree of validity. But the people closest to him know best.

Pieter Rossouw, Habana’s backline coach at the Bulls, believes it is a hybrid of issues. Rossouw is well placed to comment on the struggles of a Test winger. He wore the Springbok No 11 shirt, that Habana now
owns, 43 times, scoring 21 tries, and was an outstanding player for Western Province.

‘There are a couple of issues with Bryan which have all contributed to a slump in confidence,’ Rossouw says. ‘He’s struggling mentally at the moment which is quite normal for any player really, but it affects Bryan more because he sets such a high standard for himself. He always wants to do something special and when that’s not happening he tends to get frustrated and it shows.

‘That is a problem because his team-mates take their mental and emotional cues from him and when his shoulders are sagging it sends out the wrong message to them. Let me stress that he’s not a sulker, it’s just that he’s so competitive and wants to contribute all the time.

‘The fact that injuries have stifled his season hasn’t helped as well,’ Rossouw continues. ‘We’ve seen in the past that when he gets into a rhythm he’s unstoppable. You only have to look at the World Cup as an example of that.

‘You also have to remember that players like Bryan are subject to elaborate planning from opposition coaches, who always look to nullify his influence by cutting down his space and time. They know that given space and time, Bryan will destroy defences.

‘But any assessment of Bryan can’t be complete without looking at him in the team context. There’s an obvious trend with him as there is with all of the world’s elite players – when the team is playing well, they are prominent. Sadly, the converse also applies. Look at Bryan in 2005 when the Bulls and Springboks were going well and then again in 2007. Then compare his 2006 and 2008 form to that. There’s a clear difference, and the common thread is that the teams he was playing in were struggling.’

Allister Coetzee worked closely with Habana for four years in his time as backline coach of the Springboks and knows the player well. He echoes Rossouw’s thoughts but has no fear that Habana will dwell among mere mortals for long.

‘Every player goes through a patch like this and Bryan is no different,’ Coetzee says. ‘The top players are able to come out better than they entered and I’m sure this is what will happen with Bryan. He must be patient at this time, and guard against an unrealistic expectation of himself. He sets an unbelievably high standard for himself, he always wants to be known as the best winger in the world. If there’s a World XV named, he wants to be at No 11.

‘He needs to understand that you can’t sustain the type of form he has over an extended period. There are external factors that will blunt you and it’s OK to slip back into the shadows for a bit and look to create opportunities for your team-mates.

‘The more he plays though, the sharper he’ll get and in time I’m sure he’ll be back. The battle for him now is a mental one. It’s like an internal war and I’m sure he’ll win.’

The need to be the victor in what is widely agreed to be an intense intrapersonal battle seems to be the
common theme. Henning Gericke is trained in the science of mental conditioning and spent four years filling that role with the Springboks. He’s been inside the winger’s head and likes what he’s seen.

‘Bryan possesses the quality that only the truly great athletes do – he lifts his game to fit the occasion. The bigger the game, the bigger the performance he delivers,’ says Gericke.

‘I was working with the Sharks in 2007 and in the final I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh no,” when he got the ball in that final move because I knew that if you needed a match winner who doesn’t crack under pressure, Bryan is your man. He might be off the boil slightly now but mentally and physically it’s impossible to play 30 games at your peak. He’s matured a lot in the last four years and he now knows how to peak mentally when he most needs to.

‘Champion athletes all share that trait as well as an unwavering belief that they can beat the opposition no matter what their form is like. Bryan is no different.

‘He may come across as windgat or arrogant to some people, but he just knows that he will produce when he needs to. There have been a couple of times he’s told coaches “I will produce” before major matches and always has. He is a champion. You’ll see, he’ll pull himself out of this place.’

The problem with geniuses is that they are often victims of their own brilliance. They set a standard that they expect to attain consistently and in doing so give others the right to hold the same expectation. Deviation from that standard elicits a level of criticism the mediocre are unaccustomed to. They are expected to blend the breathtaking with the distinctly ordinary. Geniuses are not.

‘I think Bryan is subject to an unfair level of expectation from not only the South African rugby fraternity but on the global stage as well,’ Rossouw, who is well versed in the game of build ‘em up to break ‘em down, says.

‘If he has an off day, you read about it in the South African, New Zealand, Australian and English press. I suppose that’s the price you pay for being a global superstar, but I sometimes wish people would take into consideration that Bryan is playing against some of the world’s elite players week in, week out. The fact that he excels more than he struggles speaks volumes about the class of the man.’

Time heals all wounds, especially those of the psychological nature and you simply cannot suppress genius. It infiltrates the cells, stimulates the neurons to trigger the most brilliant motor functions and oozes out of the pores. Habana’s genius will soon resurface and the world will once again be mesmerised.

‘Bryan is a class apart and this means he simply can’t measure himself against his peers – he’s so far ahead,’ Rossouw says. ‘He is like Tiger Woods in the sense that he competes against himself and only he can determine whether he overcomes the mental challenges that will come throughout his career. Rest assured, this isn’t the last time he’ll go through this. If he masters that art, I’d hate to think just how devastating he could be.

‘At 25, he has time on his side as well. The key for him now is to go back to the basics, be patient and realise that he should not define his success or failure simply by the number of tries he scores.

‘Part of his problems have come from the fact that the opposition often post two or three defenders on him. But the reality is that this is a significant part of his value to any team as well. It means that there are two or three team-mates unmarked somewhere on the park. The best players in the world offer that to their teams and
the sooner Bryan embraces that, the better for him.

‘That’s not to say he won’t get back in the try-scoring groove again because he’s too good to to be kept down. He’s a special player. Special players never stay down.’

By Ryan Vrede for SA Rugby magazine