Healing Habana

Two years ago Bryan Habana would have been a massive loss to the Bulls. Now that’s debatable.

The winger broke his hand against the Lions at the weekend and will be sidelined for up to four weeks. But just how significant will his absence be? It seems an absurd question. This is Bryan Habana after all. Wing extraordinaire. IRB Player of the Year 2007. Surely we should be lamenting the loss of a demigod. To question his value? Abomination!

For most of his career Habana could do no wrong. A try on Test debut and a bagful at a good strike rate thereafter. A magical solo effort to crush the Sharks in the 2007 Super 14 final at Kings Park. Four trips across the whitewash against Samoa in the first pool match at the World Cup and four more thereafter, including a brace against Argentina in the semi-final to equal the great All Black Jonah Lomu’s record.

In 2007 Habana was stumbling over the pile of rose petals that marked his path. I was liberal in my praise of him then, and supportive throughout 2008, believing, like many, that form truly is only temporary while class endures. But Habana has fallen well short of the standards he sets for himself and he cannot be exempt from criticism.

His coaches point to his contribution in other areas of his game. But a winger’s worth is measured in tries. It’s their primary role and if they’re failing in that role, the team is adversely affected.

Tightheads are selected primarily to scrum the life out of the opposition’s loosehead and establish a solid attacking platform for their team, openside flankers to make an impact at the breakdown, flyhalves to control the match through kicking; passing or running. Wingers, to score tries. Habana scored just five tries in their 2008 Super 14 campaign and just one in three Super Rugby matches this year. His record in the 2008 Test season is equally disappointing.

I for one don’t want to know about Habana’s work-rate around the park, the number of tackles he makes or any other peripheral issue that has been offered to divert attention from his poor try scoring record in the last two seasons. I want to see a throwback to two years ago – Habana scything through defences en route to the tryline. If not that, then I want an honest and definitive explanation of why Habana’s form has dropped off so badly. This is yet forthcoming.

Mark Keohane, in a piece for the February edition of Business Day Sport, believes Habana has lost his prime asset – his pace – and questions what sort of impact Habana will have in future now that that commodity seems to be missing. It’s hard to challenge that assertion having watched Habana over the last year. Keohane also wonders whether Habana, having slowed, will be able to re-invent himself as a fullback or centre or whether his longevity is determined by his pace.

Time will reveal the answers to those questions and Habana may yet rekindle the form that had Dan Carter gushing at the IRB awards dinner in 2007. “So quick. He’s just so quick. It’s unbelievable. Bryan’s just a special, special player,” the All Blacks flyhalf said.

He was a special player in 2007. Now he’s a distinctly ordinary one who is surviving on a reputation built over the first four years of his career.

The Bulls will miss him over the next month because they don’t have anything in reserve to match Habana, even the ordinary Habana. His experience counts for something, but it’s as far as his contribution from a try scoring perspective goes his replacement can’t do any worse.

Perhaps the injury enforced break will be good for Habana. Maybe it will allow him time for introspection and increase his hunger to return to, or better yet, surpass the heights he scaled in 2007.

Only a fool would write off Habana. In fact, I hope at the end of 2009 Habana’s performance level would have been such that I have an opportunity tell the story of a superstar who fell from his pedestal but clawed his way back.

Here’s hoping his afterburners are repaired and his nitrogen-oxide supplies replenished in this period. The world is not ready for the demise of Habana yet. They want to be enthralled some more. They want to be left breathless as he leaves defenders for dead. They want to see that beatific smile that has become his trademark once again.

By Ryan Vrede