Habana needs help

GAVIN RICH, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says Bryan Habana needs creative players around him if he’s to start scoring tries at Test level again.

Not since Percy Montgomery and his white boots invoked the ire of the Loftus crowd in a Tri-Nations match in 1999 has a Springbok been jeered and heckled as mercilessly as Bryan Habana was by the Bloemfontein crowd last season. Poor Habana looked like he had no place to hide as his own supporters turned on him during a first half against Australia in which he was cruelly exposed several times on defence and in which he looked incapable of catching the ball without making a mistake.

For Habana it was surely the nadir of a career which was highlighted by him winning the IRB Player of the Year award just three seasons previously. The award in 2007 was always going to go to the top performer at the World Cup, and Habana’s eight tries in the tournament, including four in the opening match against Samoa, equalled the record set by Jonah Lomu in 1999 for the number of tries scored by an individual at rugby’s showpiece event.

So it has been quite a slide for Habana, and the statistics appear to back up the perception of his critics that his match-winning abilities are on the wane. At the end of 2007, after three full seasons in the green and gold, Habana had scored 30 tries for his country. Back then you would have predicted that by now he would have advanced to a point where his number of tries matched Jacques Kallis’s batting average. But Habana is nowhere near the mid-50s, and Joost van der Westhuizen’s aggregate tally of 38 Test tries for the Boks still has to be eclipsed. That is the number of tries next to Habana’s name now, yet he equalled Van der Westhuizen’s record as long ago as June of last year.

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers said during the Tri-Nations that what was stumping Habana was his eagerness to break the record. Yet that cannot explain why in the three years since the World Cup he has only scored eight times. He wasn’t on the cusp of the record in 2008, when he only scored two tries in the entire season.

Neither is it just Habana’s strike rate that has bred him a phalanx of critics questioning his worth. It was his defensive play more than any weaknesses in his attacking game that most contributed to the crescendo of boos and jeers in the Bloemfontein Test.

In that game and the one in Pretoria the previous week, the Wallabies were all over the Boks in the first half – and the misalignment of Habana’s spot tackles were a contributing factor in forcing the Boks to play catch-up on both occasions.

It was Habana, as much as the then out-of-form skipper John Smit, the critics were thinking of when they slammed De Villiers for not being strong enough to make big selection calls and sacrifice senior players.

And yet, for all this black and white statistical evidence weighing against Habana, there are a few things which just don’t add up and which should prompt deeper probing and analysis of where and why it appears to be going wrong for him.

For a start, where were the question marks over Habana’s pace and finishing ability when he scored two tries in his first Newlands appearance in a Stormers jersey against the Waratahs last February? Yes, there was carping from some Cape critics who think every ball should be thrown to the wing and who felt that Habana’s attacking ability was not utilised properly in the Stormers’ system.

But Habana never once let the Stormers down; he scored tries when it was on to do so, and it is hard to recall him producing the errors that blighted him at Springbok level. Moreover, the Stormers ended the Super 14 with a phenomenal defensive record and there were none of the question marks that were to plague Habana in the Tri-Nations.

The Stormers conceded an average of just over one try per match, so clearly there was no defensive weakness. Neither was it a case of Habana losing form in the Tri-Nations and then going into an irreversible slide. Some aspects of the claims made by the Bok management after a series of tests conducted during the Bok camp last September were questioned, but there was no reason to disbelieve the contention that Habana was quicker than ever.

Certainly when he returned to rugby for Western Province against the Sharks at Newlands he showed the kind of pace that has played such a big part in his success. Habana was sharp in the WP jersey, and it led us to expect him to be the same for the Boks in the UK and Ireland. He wasn’t, so why is that?

There are no clear answers, but the question could be at least partially answered if you go back to Habana’s humble speech when he accepted his IRB Player of the Year award in Paris. He refused to accept all the credit for what he achieved, and instead pointed to those around him.

He reminded everyone that rugby is a team game, and the man he singled out for particular mention as the architect of what had gone right for both himself and the Boks was scrumhalf Fourie du Preez.

Some might say it was false modesty, but those who have heard former All Blacks wing Jeff Wilson talk at coaching courses will get a strong sense of what Habana was on  about. It is Wilson’s view that a wing is almost completely reliant on the creators around him.

Wilson does have a point. Jonah Lomu, with his massive bulk and strength, was a rare and almost unique example of a winger who could force his way over for tries from almost impossible situations. For the most part wings tend to take credit for what has been done around them, just as goal-kickers often steal the limelight from the hard-working forwards who create the pressure that leads to the penalties.

Is it stretching it to suggest that part of the reason Habana looks off for the Boks but remains sharp in a Stormers jersey is because in one team he has Morné Steyn as his flyhalf and in the other he has Peter Grant? One player asks questions of the opposing defences, thus creating more opportunities out wide, the other does it much less so.

It wasn’t just Habana who looked bankrupt on attack in the Bok jersey last season, the entire backline did. There was a rush to blame Bok assistant coach Dick Muir for this, but there has been nothing wrong with the attacking potency of the other backlines that Muir has coached.

Unfortunately no one had the guts to do what should have been done by giving Pat Lambie an opportunity to start in a Test, but all the Bok management – and this includes De Villiers – were astounded at the effect that the 20-year-old Sharks flyhalf had on the backs in training sessions during the last end-of-year tour.

Lambie did show how effective the backs could be with him at pivot in his brief cameo in his debut match in Dublin. Those who doubt this view should take a look at the try scored by Gio Aplon when Lambie was on the field – where did it come from and who created it? Lambie’s ability to take the ball and pass it accurately from the gainline played a big part.

There wasn’t too much of that last year from the Boks, and, to be honest, neither was there in South Africa’s successful 2009 season, where percentage rugby was the key to the resounding Tri-Nations triumph.

During that southern hemisphere competition there was a moment when the Boks might have given some insight into why Habana may appear to be struggling. In the match in Perth the Boks shocked the Aussies by running the ball. It was their best running performance in ages, and Habana scored a brace.

Of course, given the strategy of the Bulls and Bok teams he has played for, it would be no surprise to find that a high percentage of Habana’s tries across all levels have come off kick and chase, and several were also the product of intercepts which capitalise on the panic of opponents who have been squeezed.

But given the opportunity, Habana has been as fine a finisher of opportunities that have been created for him as anyone who has played the game. So it would probably be reasonable to assume Habana would have added significantly to his try-scoring tally had he been in the side on the other day (apart from Perth) in recent memory when the Boks were in the business of creating tries for their wings.

That was in the 53-8 win over Australia in the last Tri-Nations match of 2008. Jongi Nokwe scored four tries, but every one of those tries was laid on a platter for Nokwe, all he needed was his pace to finish off.

What was significant about that game was that it was the last that Butch James played as the first-choice starting flyhalf. In the initial days of De Villiers’s reign as national coach the Boks suffered from confusion in the messages sent out, and James was an obvious victim, but he showed at Ellis Park against the Aussies just why someone like Habana thrived more prior to 2007 than he has subsequently.

Although often accused of being too conservative, one thing that the previous Bok coach Jake White was always set against was a flyhalf who made a habit of standing in the pocket. It was why Willem de Waal never got to feature under White, not even for an end-of-year tour where some critics felt he might prove beneficial, and Derick Hougaard only played for the Bok ‘B team’ in the 2007 Tri-Nations.

Some may now ask why it was that Habana scored so many tries for the Bulls when Hougaard was wearing No 10, but there is an easy answer for that which goes back again to Habana’s acceptance speech in Paris in 2007 – Fourie du Preez.

It is all about the men on the inside asking questions of the opposition, and Du Preez does that in abundance. It is probably the reason that Steyn looks a more potent attacking force and attacking catalyst when he is present. Of course Du Preez wasn’t present last year, and the Bok kicking game and attacking game suffered, and as a consequence Habana was made to look second rate.

Lambie probably hasn’t been given enough Test experience to be risked as a starter at a World Cup and the Boks are unlikely to move Ruan Pienaar back to flyhalf now, but the return of Du Preez, even more so if coupled with the selection of James, could just see Habana repeat in 2011 what he did in 2007.

– This article first appeared in the March issue of SA Rugby magazine. The April issue will be on sale from 16 March.
Click here to subscribe to print edition
Click here to subscribe to digital edition