‘All Blacks are still favourites’

Bryan Habana has challenged the popular perception that the Springboks are the team to beat at this World Cup.

Many of the New Zealand newspapers, television shows and radio stations have hailed the arrival of the Boks following their two big wins against Fiji and Namibia. ‘Can anybody beat this side?’ seems to be a popular question and theme running through the local media.

The All Blacks made a statement last Saturday when they thumped France 37-17. It was a significant result, as it all but ensured that they won Pool A (they should collect a further five points against Canada this Sunday). It was also a significant performance, as while a number of individuals shone it was a polished collective effort that sent the strongest message to New Zealand’s would-be challengers.

Habana confirmed that the Boks have taken note, and moved to play down the hype born on the back of South Africa’s big wins over Fiji and Namibia.

According to Habana, only one team has arrived at this tournament. For a team like the Boks, the recent performances need to be viewed in context. They are still a long way away from where they need to be.

‘The All Blacks have really laid down a marker, and they are the only team to have qualified for the play-offs,’ said Habana. ‘They are still the favourites.’

Habana said there’s still room for improvement before the do or die game against the Wallabies in the quarter-final. The Boks also won’t take anything for granted against Samoa, as a loose performance against the islanders could potentially cost them a place in the final eight.

‘When we went away from our structures [against Namibia] there were individual errors. We were good when we got back into our structures later in the game.

‘I believe the best is yet to come from this side. It’s been difficult [to build much momentum] with all the injuries over the last three weeks. The [first-choice] combinations haven’t had much of an opportunity to play together. There’s a lot to improve on, and we should start to see those combos clicking in the coming game.’

The Boks put 59 points past Samoa in the previous Test between these two sides. Habana was in top form on that occasion, scoring four tries.

Unfortunately, the Boks’ most prolific try-scorer has struggled to rediscover that kind of form in the subsequent four years, and in 2011 the team as a collective has battled to fire against the top sides. While Samoa is not in the top echelon, they will ask more questions than Fiji and Namibia.

‘They’ve improved a lot since 2007,’ said Habana. ‘They’ve always been physical but they are playing with a lot more structure in 2011.

‘We have to give our all. You can’t go into this game worrying about injuries [ahead of a probable quarter-final], rugby is a collision sport not a contact sport. If you’re worried about injuries you shouldn’t be playing rugby.’

By Jon Cardinelli, in Auckland