Bryan Habana acknowledges that he has struggled to adapt to the pressure of being targeted.
The Springboks and Bulls winger is poised for his second Super 14 final in three years. He ended their 2007 campaign as the hero after a mesmerising run culminated in him flying over the whitewash after the full-time siren had sounded, clinching the title for the Bulls.
He was irrepressible at the World Cup later that year and deservedly won the IRB Player of the Year award to cap a fine season.
However, 2008 was marked by mediocre performances for both the Bulls and Springboks, and his struggles continued into the early part of the 2009 Super 14.
Habana now seems to be clawing himself off the canvas, and has in recent weeks displayed the type of form that had elicited praise from across the globe. He’s scored five tries in his last seven games, and six in total, on par with the company he deserves to keep – the likes of Sitiveni Sivivatu and Springbok team-mate JP Pietersen.
There was plenty of fighting talk from Habana’s coaches during his slump, all insisting that he would return to his best. Habana has remained fairly quiet amidst suggestions that he had lost the yard of pace that made him the pre-eminent winger in world rugby, but for the first time has discussed his flaws. Speaking at Loftus, Habana conceded that he had trouble coping with the glare of the spotlight he had inadvertently turned on himself.
‘Any player who desires to be the best in the world in their position has to accept that they’re going to be closely watched when they achieve their goal,’ he said.
‘Teams mark you tightly and look to cut down your space and time. In that situation you have to adapt to create scoring opportunities, and I probably didn’t make that adaptation quickly enough.’
Habana denied that the weight of expectation following his stellar 2007 season adversely affected his form.
‘I don’t feel pressure from outside to perform because the pressure I put on myself far outweighs that pressure,’ he said.
Asked what he attributed his recent potency to, Habana deflected the praise to team-mates.
‘When you play behind a pack with Pierre Spies at No 8, Victor and Bakkies as the lock pairing, Gurthro Steenkamp at loosehead prop and Fourie du Preez at scrummy, it’s a big plus,’ he said.
Habana added that he looks to glean as much knowledge from former Springbok wing and current Bulls backline coach Pieter Rossouw, in his attempt to replicate his best form.
‘I’ve benefited from Pieter’s experience,’ he said. ‘He has been there as a Springbok winger, so he knows what he’s talking about.’
Habana was set to be one of four white-hot wingers on show on Saturday, but that figure has since been depleted by one with news that Sivivatu will miss the match with a dislocated shoulder.
Bryan Habana was liberal in his praise of the fallen Chiefs winger, but certainly didn’t lament his absence.
‘You want to test yourself against the best in the world, but we aren’t complaining that he’s out,’ he said.
‘He’s a fantastic player and was exceptional when he was gracing the field. It’s unfortunate that he’s not playing, but that’s one less problem we have to worry about. They’ll still be a great challenge, especially with a guy like Lelia Masaga who can change a game in an instant.’
Habana possesses that match winning quality himself, and intimated that he would love to contribute in a decisive manner in the final.
‘Personally, as a rugby player you work towards making a contribution to something special. When we started pre-season in George we had the goal of finishing first so that we could give ourselves a chance of doing something special,’ he said.
‘If I can play a role in that then that would be great for the team. I don’t know if we want to leave it as late as we did in Durban though.’
By Ryan Vrede, at Loftus