RYAN VREDE writes that a positional change to midfield has the potential to rejuvenate Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen.
As wingers the duo have been impostors of the potent forces they were in their pomp. Habana has declined most markedly and Pietersen has undoubtedly benefited from the intense focus on his Springbok partner. He has been spared the scrutiny that his chronic struggles have warranted.
They enter the 2012 Super Rugby campaign hopeful of recapturing the form that placed them among the world’s elite in their position. Hope has replaced what, at their best, used to be a strong degree of certainty.
At 25, Pietersen has more of a chance of rekindling his form as a winger. Habana, 28, is in a race against time that, on the evidence of recent seasons, he is losing badly. His confidence was always rooted in his unmatched acceleration and red-line top-end speed. His body is apparently betraying him in this regard and consequently affecting other facets of his game.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee is mulling over the idea of deploying Habana at outside centre. It is an inadvertent admission that the player is no longer indispensable as a wing. Sharks coach John Plumtree has made the same veiled admission by trialing Pietersen in the No 13 jersey. Both coaches will claim that their hands were forced with the departures of incumbents and the absence of natural successors. There is legitimacy on both counts, but we cannot ignore the implicit concession that their powers have waned notably as wingers.
I had never considered a positional change as an alternative when thinking about the potential rejuvenation of Habana. I had hoped, for the health of South African rugby, that he would somehow produce a throwback season. There was little conviction in that hope but Coetzee’s plan stirs optimism and has merit.
Habana was undoubtedly a natural winger but started his career with the Lions in midfield. The position-specific skills set will return to him if Coetzee commits to an extended run. Herein lies the key to any potential success – there cannot be a tentative approach. It, however, appears that Juan de Jongh still holds the inside track for the midfield role with Jaque Fourie and Johann Sadie departing recently.
He is a gifted player with an X factor the Stormers have lacked for some time but it is a personal view that he is better suited to inside centre where his game breaking skills can be utilised more effectively in creating opportunities for his outside backs. Jean de Villiers will be the incumbent in the No 12 shirt and he should be rotated with De Jongh, with Habana installed as the premier outside centre initially and being granted the opportunity to prove his aptitude. De Villiers or De Jongh would provide cover for the position off the wood.
A transition for Pietersen would be more difficult and risky given his lack of previous experience in the position. This could be a dissuasive factor for Plumtree in an environment that is so results driven. It would be the braver of the two calls. But Pietersen needs a jolt. In conversation with him and team-mates who know him, he strikes one as the type who needs to be constantly challenged to consistently deliver his best. Peculiarly, when he feels secure his form goes south. He is not different to other notable elite players in this way – New Zealand’s Ma’a Nonu and Piri Weepu being prime examples.
The duo may well still start as wingers in 2012 but there is certainly sense in exploring further the idea of them as midfielders. For Habana more than Pietersen it offers the opportunity to prolong his career.