MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day column, says Bryan Habana’s performance against the Blues proved that he still has what it takes to match the young brigade.
In a Super Rugby season that is already giving an indication of the next generation of southern hemisphere stars, there were a few veterans who reminded us this weekend their effect and enthusiasm remain as important to the fabric of the tournament.
Bryan Habana, irresistible at the 2007 World Cup and quite the opposite last year, finally got the kind bounce of the ball that seemed his birthright in 2007.
Habana again emphasised the argument that a kick for territory is only as good as the chase. Habana refused to give up on a kick that seemed innocuous and the sprint produced a try for the Stormers and Springbok winger, and one hopes also a reprieve from those who refuse to accept Habana can still make a contribution internationally. Few players can match Habana for dedication and desire, and the support he gets from current and past team-mates says everything about his qualities as a player.
He will never repeat the tournament form that helped the Springboks win the World Cup in 2007. The brilliance of those seven magnificent weeks blinded too many, myself included. When a player sets a standard as Habana did in France, he also sets an expectation that isn’t necessarily realistic.
His move from the Bulls to Western Province after the 2007 World Cup also came at a time when the Province and Stormers coaches invested in a defensive mindset that favoured structure and offered little to the individual attacking ambitions of the back three. Opportunities on attack were limited for Habana in a team with the best defensive record in Super Rugby in 2010 and last year. And when a winger is starved of the ball he is also starved of that swagger that turns a stumble into a sensational break.
I sat next to Percy Montgomery at Friday’s Stormers match against the Blues. Montgomery, in our company suite draw, had Habana to score the first try of the match and when his former team-mate did just that Montgomery pumped his fist in the air in a show of solidarity.
Montgomery, the first South African to play 100 Test matches for the Boks, spent four years playing Test rugby alongside Habana and the next four as part of the Springbok coaching staff. He has never doubted Habana, and is adamant there has been an evolution of his game that wasn’t recognised because of how tightly the wing was marked and how significantly different his role was at the Stormers compared to the Bulls.
Montgomery conceded that where Habana did struggle was in confidence and, as happens in sport, the harder an individual tries the worse it seems to get. The Habana that finished last year’s World Cup was not a spent force, but a tired one. The quality of depth among South African players allows the public, the media and even coaches to call time on a player prematurely. The belief is always that this country’s rugby production line will produce a younger and faster alternative.
Too often (and here I am in the dock as well) there is more comfort in a new face and a quick fix than the laboured recovery of the likes of Habana.
To see Habana flourish at Newlands was my highlight in a weekend where the Stormers, Sharks and Cheetahs were good enough to win and played well enough to deserve their respective victories. Stormers captain and inside centre Jean de Villiers was excellent in leading the victory against the Blues, and if Frans Steyn is the probable Bok option at No 12 for the 2015 World Cup, De Villiers played with enough authority and effect to make it hard to ignore his claims to a season or two more in national colours.
Bismarck du Plessis was the inspiration for the Sharks and Pat Lambie’s radar and all-round rhythm was of a standard that matches the belief in his potential to be consistently influential in determining results. Cheetahs captain Adriaan Strauss is another whose star shines bright in this year’s tournament, and rookie flyhalf Johan Goosen has a presence that screams permanence. Bok coach Heyneke Meyer is blessed with so many options in every position and there are South Africans dominating in every competition in the northern and southern hemisphere.
The attrition rate in Super Rugby will be a hurdle for Meyer, Robbie Deans and Steve Hansen, but the South African and New Zealand competition challenge is producing a number of selection alternatives to negate injuries. The tournament’s young brigade is thriving, but there are as many veterans matching the new kids, none more so this weekend than Habana and De Villiers.