Faltering flyers

The form of Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen is a major concern.

Both wingers scored at the weekend to open their Super 14 accounts for 2009, but that only served to gloss over serious concerns about their overall standard of play.

It was Pietersen’s first Super 14 try in 16 Super Rugby matches after the 2008 season yielded zero trips across the whitewash. It was a major regression as he had finished 2007 as the tournament’s leading scorer.

The Sharks offered countless assurances that he would return to his former self and rid himself of the impostor who has possessed him.

However, the 2008 Test season offered little hope that he would achieve the desired turnaround and the manner in which he has started the Super 14 season suggests we should be braced for more mediocrity unless introspection reveals a personal or technical flaw, or the Sharks’ coaching team underline their expectations and work with Pietersen to ensure he meets those expectations.

Encouragingly though there have been glimpses of what Pietersen is capable of. For Habana, however, that is not the case.

The IRB Player of the Year for 2007 barely registered a one on rugby’s Richter Scale in 2008. He scored just five Super 14 tries in 2008, and was equally disappointing at Test level, scoring just once in the Tri-Nations.

Raw pace is what separated Habana from world rugby’s elite wingers. That commodity now seems to be lost, or missing, for some unknown reason. As a result he now dwells amongst mere mortals, while in 2007, and indeed in the two years preceding that, he was peerless.

We were told that injuries blunted his potency in 2008. When he recovered his coaches at the Bulls and former Springbok coach Allister Coetzee, who worked with Habana for four years at Test level, told keo.co.za his confidence was low but insisted that his class remained despite his form waning. They maintained that he would return to his former glory.

We believed unconditionally because we want to see our heroes prosper. For the most part we were blinded to Habana’s fallibility, believing him to be technically sound in all facets of play, even though on closer inspection this is not the case.

In the absence of blistering pace, Habana has been reduced to largely ineffective smashes into the defensive line, where at his best he backed himself to beat a defender on the outside. Such was his prowess in 2007 that he possessed an aura which allowed him to invade the very psyche of the opposition’s players and coaches. I’d be surprised if Habana warranted more than a passing mention in the opposition’s planning at present. Those coaches will tell you differently in public. They’ll insist that Habana remains an ominous threat, but privately they will be acutely aware that the former ballistic missile is currently nothing more than a pop gun.

Habana’s contract with the Bulls expires at the end of October and he’ll continue with the Springboks until the end of November, after which he is likely to sign for one of a number of suitors in the south of France. As disappointing as it will be to lose a player of his calibre, perhaps a break from rugby in the southern hemisphere will galvanise. We can only hope.

Time will judge both players and surely the prevailing hope throughout the South African rugby fraternity is that both will return to their best form. At present the incumbent Springbok wingers are a shadow of the players they were at two seasons ago.

By Ryan Vrede