Troubles of a white wing

Gerhard van den Heever faces immense obstacles in his quest to earn Springbok selection.

The Bulls wing wants to go to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. And in an ideal world, one uncomplicated by Bryan Habana’s legacy and accepted but flawed selection norms, he’d have a realistic hope too.

This, after all, is the kid who ended his rookie season in 2009 having scored 11 tries in 19 provincial matches, and at the time of writing had bagged four in seven Super 14 starts. Rich in promise and with all the technical and physical attributes a modern wing needs to be successful, his Springbok ambition isn’t misplaced.

But his is a unique battle – one that no other elite South African wing has to fight.

It’s one, firstly, for acceptance and appreciation among the Loftus disciples, who are still in mourning after the passing – figuratively speaking – of their messiah, Habana. Van den Heever is yet to prove he is worthy of lacing Habana’s boots, let alone filling them.

Those in the know at the Bulls tell me he’s quicker than Habana (a South African champion hurdler at school, he once ran 13.7sec over 110m and boasts a 200m best of 20.9). He’s quicker than that now, but speed alone will never see him escape Habana’s haunting shadow.

Habana’s legend was built on feats of brilliance, the most memorable of which came at Kings Park in 2007. That last-gasp try against the Sharks captured the Bulls’ first Super 14 title. Appreciation for Habana became reverence. Whoever succeeded him would be judged by the standard he had set.

Habana was the Bulls’ adrenalin-charged central nervous system, renowned for his ability to spark the team into life with impossibly brilliant feats. Viewed in this context, Van den Heever’s lot is not an enviable one.

He addresses the subject of being compared to Habana with the naivety of the man-child that he is.

‘People shouldn’t compare me to Bryan,’ he says. ‘Of course they shouldn’t,’ I counter, ‘but the reality is they do and are, and will continue to for some time.’

‘I can’t control that. I can’t control what people think. I just know I’m my own man. Bryan is the best wing in the world. Nobody can fill his boots,’ is his rebuttal.

‘Sure,’ I probe further, ‘but as unrealistic as the expectation is, the nature of people is to measure the replacement of an exceptional player by the standards that player has set. Let me ask you this, where do you think you stand in the Bulls supporters’ estimation?

‘I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that.’

Of course he hasn’t. The question was a foolish one to pose to a 20-year-old who was probably oblivious to the issue until I raised it. Such complexities didn’t register with him. Keeping his starting place through consistent performance is his primary, all-consuming, objective. But his ignorant bliss will soon be disturbed by the realisation of the magnitude of the task ahead. The Bulls’ faithful are looking for a new demi-god to worship. Van den Heever’s mortality will only be tolerated for so long. Supernatural is what is demanded.

‘That’s unfair pressure to put on a youngster,’ Bulls coach Frans Ludeke says. ‘We see a bright future for Gerhard, but we’re realistic about his development and understand that we need to have patience with him.

‘Bryan was a special player who will forever be remembered as a legend at Loftus. But I think it’s testament to Gerhard’s talent  that people compare him to Bryan. Even Bryan said he [Van den Heever] is a better player at 20 than he was at the same age. That’s a massive compliment and he will only improve.

‘We’re giving him time and space to progress naturally. I hope others will do the same.’

Van den Heever could have done without Habana weighing in on the issue of his successor in a post-match interview after their Currie Cup triumph in 2009.

It was a throwaway line: ‘I think Gerhard has the potential to be a Bulls and Springbok great.’ The implications of which Habana didn’t consider at the time. He was paying a massive compliment to his heir apparent, but inadvertently dumped a jersey that weighed 100kg on the kid and slipped lead boots on to his feet.

Van den Heever remains unfazed.

‘That comment never made me feel burdened. Why would it? I grew up idolising Bryan and for me to feel down about him saying kind things like that about me to the media would be foolish.’

But there is an uncertainty detectable in Van den Heever’s voice. Earlier he told me ‘I back my ability’ when asked if he ever felt inhibited by a fear of failure, then later admits that he ‘sometimes’ thinks he is out of his depth.

That inconsistency isn’t unexpected from one so young. It does, however, remind us that Van den Heever’s is as much a battle to emerge from Habana’s shadow, as it is one for emotional and cognitive equilibrium.

Then there’s the issue of Springbok selection and the World Cup, which poses an altogether new challenge.

Not since Nick Mallett routinely penned Pieter Rossouw’s name on the team sheet has a Springbok coach consistently selected a white wing.

This has become the domain of the dark-skinned player, and the prospects of the perception that white is whack changing are slim, unless Van den Heever plays so exceptionally that he makes himself invaluable to the Springboks.

And even if he should master levitation, acquire a jet pack and blow his opposition away in the coming year, he would still be competing for just one position, given that Springbok coach Peter de Villiers is highly unlikely to look beyond Habana as his starting left wing.

That leaves Van den Heever competing with eight wingers (at the time of writing, all of whom were black, and one of who, JP Pietersen, is a World Cup winner) for the right wing berth.

‘If I suggested those were insurmountable odds, what would your response be?’

‘I don’t think like that,’ he says, ‘I don’t think about the issues you’ve raised, or all the wingers I have to get past to make the Springbok squad. Maybe it’s naive, but I’d like to think that if I’m the best of the bunch I’ll get picked.’

‘But that hasn’t been the reality of Springbok rugby recently,’ I interject. ‘The best players sometimes don’t get picked for various reasons.’

‘The Springbok coach has said on a number of occasions that he will reward those who perform consistently. I can only trust that he stays true to his word,’ he says.

Only time will tell whether Van den Heever will die in the darkness cast by Habana’s shadow, or whether he’ll stay the execution and build a legacy of his own. This year’s rugby season will be decisive in answering that question.

Time is not an ally. Conclusions about his aptitude for Super Rugby will be drawn at the end of their 2010 campaign, or perhaps sooner, without due consideration of his age. Even exceptional performances will still not guarantee that he even gets a passing glance from the Springbok selectors.

Welcome to the world of Gerhard van den Heever. It isn’t a place for the faint-hearted.

By Ryan Vrede

– This article first appeared in the April issue of SA Rugby magazine. The May issue is on sale now.