RYAN VREDE writes that while many in a youthful Springboks’ squad want to prove they have the aptitude for Test rugby, Bryan Habana wants to prove to himself that he still has it.
Habana doesn’t shy away from the issue of his poor form prior to the start of the current Super Rugby campaign – a nightmarish passage that began around 2010 and gradually descended. At the time he certainly had a sense that he was playing below the standard he sets (in Tests in particular), but couldn’t comprehend the intense criticism. Time has given him perspective.
He understands he raised the bar of expectation with his showings between 2004 and 2007, a period in which he scored 30 tries in 36 Tests and became the IRB’s Player of the Year off the back of irresistible form at the World Cup. But this expectation felt unrealistic for him at times, and on the evidence of his performances, the harder he tried (and he never lacked for effort) the greater his struggle became.
Just before the 2011 Tri-Nations, Heyneke Meyer, then in his capacity as Bulls director of rugby, told keo.co.za: ‘It’s like being stuck in quicksand. The more you fight, the deeper you sink. I’ve seen it happen to many players.
‘It’s not my place to comment on Bryan because I don’t know the full picture – what’s happening in his personal life and so on – but generally the players I’ve seen recover from those situations have done so when they’ve rediscovered a natural enjoyment of the game again. How he gets to that point is for him and his coaches to determine.’
That enjoyment seems to have returned with greater on-field success, and the more he enjoys it the better he plays. A vicious cycle has given way to a positive one.
‘Having achieved what I have, the pressure was always going to be on me to perform [at a consistently high standard]. I’ve been a player that has been able to make a differences in matches. The most disappointing thing to come out of the last 12-month period was the amount of individual errors I continually made,’ Habana says.
‘It was something that wasn’t in my game before. I had to go away and look at the reasons for this and rectify them [Habana has since worked with world-renowned visual skills coach Sherylle Calder]. I was fortunate to have a coaching team and team-mates that backed me. No matter whether I believed in myself or not, I constantly had that support structure. Coming off 2011 I had to go back and see where I was as a player and establish what I wanted to achieve.’
However, Habana, who turns 29 in a fortnight, stressed that his Super Rugby form was merely a glimpse of the standard he expects of himself.
‘I wouldn’t call what I’m producing now good form because I’m not where I want to be. There’s a lot more that I want to achieve. It’s been a good start but there’s a lot more for me,’ he offered.
A winger will always be measured primarily by the number of tries he scores and with what regularity he scores them. There are widely held concerns that with the Springboks’ pragmatic game plan Habana won’t see much of the ball. Habana doesn’t share that pessimism.
‘I see our game plan the same way I saw it nine years ago. Everyone told me going from the Lions to the Bulls was going to make me a worse players because of the perceived 10-man style. Then I became part if the most successful South African franchise in Super Rugby. As players we understand what we’re trying to achieve and believe in the structures.’
This Test season will be one of the defining ones in Habana’s career. If his torrid form endures, his mentor Meyer is unlikely to be as charitable with the No 11 shirt as his predecessor Peter de Villiers was. But I sense it won’t. I sense Habana is set for a statement season. Here’s hoping that sense isn’t misplaced. Here’s hoping that statement is: ‘I’m back’.
By Ryan Vrede, in Durban