Bryan looks to break the barrier

Bryan Habana says that regaining his form and confidence ahead of the quarter-finals is more important than breaking Joost van der Westhuizen’s try-scoring record.

Habana equalled Van der Westhuizen’s record of 38 tries in June 2010, but has failed to make the record his own in the subsequent 15 months. His coaches at the Boks and Stormers have continued to back him through a seemingly endless slump in form, and it hasn’t helped that the once match-winning winger has been further inhibited by injuries over the past two years.

The Springboks hammered Namibia when the two teams last met in 2007, and are expected to annihilate their southern African neighbours in this Thursday’s Pool D clash at North Harbour Stadium. Habana is expected to break Van der Westhuizen’s record as the Boks rack up some big numbers, but as the player himself admits, it would only signify a smalll step in the right direction.

The Bok No 11 was a bundle of energy at Monday’s training session in Taupo. On Tuesday, he spoke with the same degree of enthusiasm about the next two pool games, and the unexpected quarter-final clash with Tri-Nations opponents Australia.

Habana is itching to get on the park, and while the record is certainly on his mind, he is more determined to get some game minutes under his belt before the Boks come up against better teams in the play-offs.

‘For any guy coming back from injury it’s important to get your match fitness up as quickly as possible,’ Habana said. ‘After playing only three internationals [in 2011] prior to this, it’s not the best place to be. Your work on and off the field is pretty important. Your rehabilitation, the time you put in with the medical squad, the conditioning… and then getting onto the field and getting involved in the game as much as possible is crucial.

‘This is going to be a World Cup where come the knockout stages, it’s going to be very tight. But there are some big games before then. Namibia this week will be like a typical Currie Cup clash where guys are out to bruise one another. That Samoan game is not going to be easy either.

‘For me personally? Well you want to set yourself goals and you have certain standards that you want to live up to. Obviously I want to meet those standards and contribute to the Boks’ success.’

Habana tried to play down the record, suggesting that his job description entails more than just try-scoring.

‘I’ve always said during my time with the Springboks, it’s not about Bryan Habana the individual, it’s about what I can bring to the team. Whether that be by leadership, whether that be by scoring tries, whether that be by making a cross cover tackle, it’s about making a positive contribution.

‘If that 39th try comes, it comes, but if we beat Namibia 150-0 and I don’t score a try, I will still be happy. Obviously I want to score tries but I’ll be happy if I can contribute in any way to a win.’

The Boks are still without injured players Jean de Villiers, Victor Matfield, Butch James and Johann Muller. Habana has managed to shake the knee injury that precluded him from the big win over Fiji, but he now faces the challenge of finding form in the last two pool games. It will be even tougher for men like De Villiers, Matfield, James and Muller to strike form immediately when (or if) they return for the pool finale against Samoa.

Injuries have threaten to derail the Boks’ title defence, as has the poor planning of the coaching staff. Peter de Villiers had targeted the pool stages as an opportunity for his best side to build synergy and momentum, but hadn’t made allowances for injuries.

The Boks find themselves in a difficult situation, and the criticism is certainly warranted. Habana admitted that the pressure of public expectation and that exerted by the media is nothing compared to that within the team. The Boks realise that they haven’t been at their best, and are determined to use the remaining pool games to find form.

‘There’s always going to be criticism and pressure in international rugby, but the biggest pressure is the pressure we put on ourselves,’ he said. ‘We were a bit disappointed about how we played in Durban against the Aussies. The New Zealand game in PE was a great momentum-builder going into the World Cup, but then we were disappointed with the effort against Wales.

‘The pressure we put on ourselves to perform is greater than the [external] pressure we perceive or feel. We’ve set ourselves high standards and goals, and there’s no individual in the squad that doesn’t want to achieve those goals. [Former Bok coach] Jake White always said in his tenure that he’s looking for that perfect [golf] game of 59. Hopefully we as players, and especially we as leaders, can set the standards, and the youngsters can give us energy to achieve those goals.’

In the big games, the Boks have stuck to a game plan that focuses on domination at the tackle point, aggressive defence and the kick-chase. It’s a strategy that’s susceptible if certain players aren’t accurate on the day.

The Boks’ inability to vary their tactics in the last couple of seasons has been their downfall, and the six-try display against Fiji shouldn’t kid people into believing that this team is capable of breaching top teams’ defences with a running game.

Their approach can, however, be particularly effective in bad weather. Habana said that teams that don’t adapt to the conditions in New Zealand, which are wont to change from day to day, and in places like Wellington from hour to hour, they will not go very far in this tournament.

He also cited the Ireland vs Australia game as example of how a team was exposed for their lack of versatility.

‘The weather conditions have at times prevented spectacular running rugby, but that’s the nature of the game in New Zealand. You have to be able to adapt. To have that variation in your game, to have a Plan B, is important.

‘If you look at what happened in the Ireland vs Australia game, the conditions weren’t suited to running rugby and Ireland, coming from the northern hemisphere, were able to play to those conditions. So it’s the team that adapts to the situation on the day that’s going to be able to come out on top.’

Habana also didn’t seem too concerned that that result has set up a quarter-final meeting with Australia. The Boks would have been favourites to beat Ireland in the quarters, but now their likely opponents, the Aussies, will have the mental edge over the South Africans having beaten them twice in the recent Tri-Nations tournament.

‘For us, we now know that if we want to win the title we’re going to have to beat some of the best teams in the world,’ Habana said. ‘But we can only worry about that when we get there. We have to play Namibia this week and Samoa could be a big pool decider.

‘History shows that you have to win all your games to win the title, but there is always an opportunity that if it doesn’t happen, you can still rewrite the history books. We’re going to focus on Namibia first, but [looking forward to Australia] it is a great challenge and we’re excited about it.’

By Jon Cardinelli, in Taupo