RYAN VREDE writes that decisive and astute management can rescue Bryan Habana from his nightmare and make him a factor at the World Cup.
That assertion is based on the premise that he will start in New Zealand. Springboks coach Peter de Villiers has never intimated otherwise. Indeed, recently, he chastised those who asked him about the winger’s form. Injury notwithstanding, Habana will be tossed the No 11 shirt on 11 September when the Springboks face Wales in Wellington and hold onto it for the duration of the tournament.
It is therefore futile, in my view, to continue the debate about his form. It doesn’t warrant continued selection for the Stormers, let alone the Springboks. But, though there are better options available to the national selectors, this situation won’t change. The more prudent route to take on the Habana issue is to find ways of getting him to the showpiece in the best possible shape – physically, technically and mentally. It is undoubtedly the latter that is of greatest concern.
To watch Habana live is to see a player racked with self doubt. The Bulls were merciless in exploiting his fragile mental state on Saturday, kicking on him consistently. He grassed a high punt early in the match, and thereafter resembled a man braced to catch hand grenades that were falling from the sky. As someone who watched his ascent through 2004 to the colossus he would become in 2007, it pained to see the poor intimation of that player at Newlands.
It undoubtedly vexes Habana more. He sets the highest standards for himself, which compounds the mental torture when he fails to match his expectation. He in turn tries harder, which only serves to amplify his struggle. ‘It’s like being stuck in quicksand,’ Habana’s former coach at the Bulls, Heyneke Meyer, told me recently. ‘The more you struggle, the deeper you sink. I’ve seen it happen to many players.
‘It’s not my place to comment on Bryan because I don’t know the full picture – what’s happening in his personal life and so on – but generally the players I’ve seen recover from those situations have done so when they’ve rediscovered a natural enjoyment of the game again. How he gets to that point is for him and his coaches to determine.’
Habana certainly fits the description perfectly. His effort is immense. You only appreciate this when your focus is trained on him for the course of a match and see him drifting to the opposite wing, making runs on his flyhalf’s shoulder and the like. His work-rate cannot be faulted. However, to get him to something resembling his former, potent self, drastic action is needed.
He must not play in the Tri-Nations. Competition against the world’s elite nations, who have the capacity to pick at his festering wounds in a way no Super Rugby side can, is nonsensical. A mental break from the rigours of rugby is a must. A period of what sports scientist call ‘active rest’ is needed, where he is placed on a tailor-made programme that seeks to address shortcomings in predetermined areas.
Top of the list has to be a focus on improved hand-eye co-ordination and speed training. With regards to the former, Habana’s association former Springboks visual skills coach Dr. Sherylle Calder yielded outstanding results. He must be put back onto her programme and continue to work with her through to the World Cup, then be disciplined to do the daily exercises the programme requires at the tournament itself.
The speed training programme is essential because it is in his speed in which Habana’s confidence, and indeed his threat, is rooted. At his peak, his acceleration was unmatched and this aided his ability to make linebreaks and/or break tackles in a way he has not done for some time. This was particularly important for him, given that he his never possessed a step of any note.
Four years ago Bjorn Basson would have stood less chance of catching him in a situation like the one that transpired in the 80th minute of Saturday’s match. To expect him to rediscover that pace would be unrealistic. Habana turned 28 on Sunday, and with advancing years comes a natural decline in this regard. However, with the right speed coach he could make gains that would make him a factor once more.
Habana is struggling, that is self-evident. But it serves no purpose to continue to lament his form in the build-up to the World Cup. The Springbok selectors are going to back him, and they will have to be accountable for that decision if his mediocrity continues and undermines the team’s cause. That said, they cannot simply hope that he recovers. There has to be a plan.