JON CARDINELLI says that Bryan Habana’s 39th try should be celebrated in the context of his career rather than mark an irrefutable return to his previously potent form.
Twenty-two minutes. For 22 minutes the 27 000 spectators crammed into North Harbour Stadium sat forward in their seats, willing the man in the Springbok No 11 jersey to score. The decibel level spiked, but the euphoria was stayed for as many as 22 minutes as the Namibian defenders scragged, tackled and stifled Bryan Habana.
It was a breakdown turnover that would provide the platform for the immortal strike. Schalk Burger shifted the ball quickly and a superb pass by Danie Rossouw created the space on the outside. Marginally in front of the pass, Habana took the ball like the Habana of old, reeling it in before accelerating beyond the despondent Namibia defenders and rounding the posts.
The finish said it all. Habana tossed the ball a mile into the air, pointed his finger to the sky and beamed that beatific smile. After 15 months and 12 Test matches, he’d finally broken through the barrier. More significantly, he’d displaced Joost Westhuizen as South Africa’s most prolific try-scorer of all time.
It was a moment for all Bok supporters inside the North Harbour Stadium and indeed the millions back in South Africa to savour. There was no point pretending that the Habana in Albany was anything but a poor impostor of the player that thrilled and captivated in Paris four years ago. Apart from that fine finish, it was another in a series of underwhelming performances from a winger who is well beyond is best. However, in the context of a career that began brilliantly and drifted into the realm of the mediocre, you couldn’t help but feel that Habana deserved to score the try that would secure the milestone of milestones.
From 2004 to 2007, Habana racked up as many as 30 tries in 36 matches. He credited much of his success to the extra work he did with visuals specialist Sherylle Calder, as his anticipation off the ball allowed him to beat opponents through great positioning as much as peerless pace.
Habana stopped using Calder’s exercises in 2008, and his form began to dip. In the matches leading up to the 2011 World Cup, he would score just eight tries in 34 Tests, and what started as a monkey on his back quickly became an 800-pound gorilla. Heyneke Meyer said it best in early 2011 when he described Habana as a man in quicksand. Habana’s former mentor didn’t sound optimistic that the once white-hot winger would rekindle that old flame.
While the stat of eight tries between 2008 and 2011 would serve to underline his impotency, it was made worse by the fact that three of those tries came against Italy. Even now, Habana has scored nine tries in the 36 Tests during the aforementioned years, and three have come against Italy and one against lowly Namibia.
He was rightly applauded when he crossed for that 39th try, and for a moment we were allowed to remember Habana as he was four years ago: an exciting and dangerous player that would always present a threat to even the best opposition defence.
Unfortunately, the rest of his performance at the North Harbour Stadium was consistent with what he’d produced prior to the 2007 World Cup. Against Namibia, he was also largely overshadowed by the likes of Gio Aplon and Francois Hougaard, two attacking exponents that need to be utilised more by South Africa in future if they hold any hope of developing their attacking game.
It was Habana’s night, but it’s never been so clear that it’s no longer his time.
Aplon dazzled with those gliding runs from the back, and when Hougaard shifted to wing in the final quarter he added that injection of pace that was, to recall a player of recent years, Habana-esque. These are the players that have the ability to confound defences and break open games much in the same manner Habana did in his early years. They’re the players that are up there with James O’Connor, Israel Dagg and Quade Cooper, and it’s high time they were acknowledged and integrated into the Bok game plan.
As for Habana, we should remember him for the player he was in 2007. He will go down in the annals as South Africa’s greatest winger, but that reputation should not be enough to keep him in the current side at the expense of potential match-winners like Aplon and Hougaard.
HABANA’S 39 TRIES
6 vs England
5 vs Australia
4 vs France
4 vs Samoa
3 vs Italy
3 vs New Zealand
3 vs Scotland
2 vs Argentina
2 vs Wales
2 vs USA
2 vs Uruguay
1 vs Ireland
1 vs Lions
1 vs Namibia
0 vs Fiji
0 vs Tonga