The real Habana stands up
11 Jun 2012
JON CARDINELLI writes that Saturday’s performance was Bryan Habana’s strongest since 2009 and his return to form bodes well for Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks.
The Boks produced a disjointed and erratic performance in Durban, but then nobody would have been surprised. The squad had only a few days to prepare for the first Test, and team synergy was always going to be an issue.
What was expected, and what was achieved, was a victory. Going forward, the Boks will settle into their combinations, and what will encourage the new coach is that several individuals are already showing form.
Habana was one of the standouts in the first Test against England. While his contributions went a long way to winning the game and striking a psychological blow in a three-Test series, the performance was an even bigger statement in the context of his career.
Habana has been in outstanding form for the Stormers this season, and in his first Test appearance in 2012 he showed that he can still be an important player for the Boks.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised by Habana’s second coming. Having watched him struggle in 2010 and 2011, I was, like many, of the belief that he had lost that spark, pace, and game-breaking sensibility that once made him the most dangerous player on the planet.
I had watched Habana battle through the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. I couldn’t understand why his coaches persisted with him as a starting option. Attending the pool match between South Africa and Namibia at the North Harbour Stadium, I wrote about Habana breaking the Boks’ try-scoring record. I saluted his achievement, but noted that his overall performance was tired and suggested that he would never regain the form of his earlier playing years.
Prior to that tournament, I had watched Habana produce error-riddled performances for the Stormers. The effort and the desire to succeed was always there, but the trademark anticipation and execution was gone. I couldn’t see how the next Bok coach could stick with him as a starting option.
The 2012 season has seen Habana fighting on, and it was evident even in the early stages of the Super Rugby competition that he was rekindling the flame of old. Back on Dr Sherylle Calder’s visual training programme, using the exercises that so clearly made a difference to his game between 2004 and 2007 and in 2009, Habana was starting to threaten defences again.
He managed to cut out the errors that marred his game in 2011, and was starting to find himself in positions to take the team forward and score tries. There was even an instance in a match against the Western Force where he intercepted a pass on his own 22m line and raced to the opposite end of the field to score.
His sense of timing and anticipation was again evident when he scored against the Bulls in the most recent match at Loftus Versfeld. Siya Kolisi provided a terrific pass, but Habana’s support line was crucial and his finish superb.
And then in his first Test of 2012, Habana put it all together to make a powerful statement.
The Boks went into this series against England with a simple game plan, and many feared that their talented backline would be under-utilised. On Saturday, however, Habana went looking for work. The Boks’ kick-chase tactics enjoyed mixed success, but in many instances the speed, aggression and timing of Habana put the English back three under pressure.
As the Bok pack settles in the next two Tests and the backs are provided with more front-foot ball, expect a man like Habana to receive more chances to run at the defence. He is the player the English should fear most. Later in the year, the Aussies and Kiwis will express the same sentiment.
Gio Aplon and Francois Hougaard produced some dazzling cameos at the 2011 World Cup, and may have been touted to replace the more experienced yet less potent wing options in 2012. But Habana has come into this season with a point to prove. He’s made a statement in the Super Rugby series and looks determined to make an emphatic point at Test level: he’s not done as an international player.
He set a high standard at Kings Park last Saturday, and there can be no denial that Bryan Habana, the most accurate, potent and polished version of that player, is back.