International Rugby, Opinions, Springboks

Lomu & Habana the easiest of left wing picks

Today’s pick is the No 11 jersey, as Mark Keohane, in a new series, selects his best Springboks since 1992 and the World XV he would pick to front this green machine in his dream Test match.

ALSO READ: Mark Keohane’s No 15 choices

Pieter Hendriks had his moments on the left wing for the Springboks, but they were too brief. Hendriks, in the early 1990s, was a destroyer at provincial level but never quite translated that form at Test level. He scored one of the great individual World Cup tries in skinning Wallabies legend David Campese in 1995 at Newlands. I was there on that day and it was even more spectacular than it looks on video.

Chester Williams’s early career would coincide with Hendriks and Williams would edge Hendriks in team selections when fitness allowed. Chester was the darling of Newlands, which the locals renamed Chesterfield because of how often he scored for Western Province. Williams won the World Cup with the Springboks in 1995 and is one of three left wingers to triumph for the Springboks in the World Cup final. Bryan Habana (2011) and Makazole Mapimpi (2019) complete the elite list.

Mapimpi scored a historic first ever Springbok try in a World Cup final and was lethal in his try-scoring in his first season of Test rugby. He already has a place in Springbok history because of the World Cup final in 2019, but just where he ranks among the best of the Springbok wingers since 1992 will only be determined over the next five years.

The late Williams’s international career was severely restricted because of injury, but he did get the most amazing of send-offs with his last match in the green and gold at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff against a star-studded Barbarians.

Pieter Rossouw also enjoyed massive highs in the early stages of his Test career. His four tries in the 52-10 route of France in Paris in 1997 and his match-winner against the All Blacks in Wellington in 1998 were two of his biggest Test moments.

Others dabbled in selection on the left wing, but from 1992 there hasn’t been a Bok winger quite as remarkable as Bryan Habana. He had serious pace and again video footage never quite gives you the full impact of his pace. Watching Habana’s pace live meant truly appreciating just how quick he was on grass.

Habana was the intercept king, a fantastic finisher, had a decent boot and was always strong on defence. His longevity is unmatched among Bok wingers in the history of the game. He played in three World Cups, scored 15 tries in 18 World Cup matches and 67 tries in 124 matches, of which he started 122. He played for 13 consecutive seasons at the highest level in a distinguished international career. He is, for me, without comparison, when it comes to Springbok left wingers since 1992. It was the easiest selection to make.

WATCH: HABANA HIGHLIGHTS

ALSO READ: Mark Keohane’s No 14 choices

Equally, the easiest selection for my World XV is the late All Black Jonah Lomu. I was living and working in New Zealand when Lomu, at 19 years and forty five days, became the youngest ever All Black. It made for a riveting experience to watch the young Jonah Lomu live and throughout my rugby writing career I can’t recall a player who had such a magnetic presence on the ball. I was at Newlands in the 1995 World Cup semi-final when Lomu bulldozed South African-born fullback Mike Catt for one of the World Cup’s most memorable moments. I was at Eden Park in Auckland for a Sunday Super Rugby match when the Blues hosted the Bulls in 1996. Lomu, from a standing still position on the Bulls 22 basically walked his way towards and over the tryline with nine Bulls players having been swatted away. When he scored he still had a few hanging on his back. Lomu, in 12 Tests against the Boks, never scored a try, which was in contrast to the 37 tries he scored in 51 other Tests. He scored 15 World Cup tries in 11 matches, which was matched by Habana (from 18 World Cup matches). His four in the semi-final against England in 1995 and one against the English at Twickenham in 1999 and two against France at Twickenham in the 1999 semi-final are my favourites. Again, I had the privilege of being at the ground and reporting on what I had witnessed.

Lomu’s lack of tries against the Boks shouldn’t be viewed as a lack of impact. He contributed to seven wins in 12 matches at a time when the Boks were one of the best defensive units in the world. Lomu’s All Blacks, in his first three matches against the Boks in 1995, 1996 and 1998, lost all three matches and the team didn’t score a try against the Boks.

Lomu defined wing play in the mid-1990s but illness meant we only ever saw Lomu at his best for a five year period and it is poignant that he would score the winning try against Australia in front of 109 000 spectators in Sydney, in what many view as the greatest game ever played.

Lomu was a monster on the field and Braam van Straaten told me a lovely story from the Test against the All Blacks in Christchurch in 2000. Van Straaten says that with half the Bok pack wrapping Lomu up in a group tackle, he managed to charge in from flyhalf and land a couple of blows on the big man. The man mountain, that was Lomu, erupted and when the referee had settled the tension, Bok teammate (flanker) Warren Brosnihan reprimanded Van Straaten: ‘Don’t do that again …’ with the qualifier that they (the forwards) were the ones who would have to deal with the big guy’s anger.

Van Straaten, who was tossed around by Lomu in a few tackles in the 1996 match for the Bulls v the Blues, said Lomu was a beast on the field but a gentle giant off it.

Former Springbok centre and Stormers coach Robbie Fleck has a similar view. Fleckie, when playing for the Stormers against the Blues at Eden Park in 1998, saw Lomu pick up 100 kilogram Stormers fullback Justin Swart and spear him into the Eden Park cricket pitch.

Fleck says that Lomu didn’t say a word while dumping his teammate head first into the turf and he felt compelled to react in defence of Swart. But when he got close, so too did Blues winger Joeli Vidiri, who offered a calm and quiet ‘good hit bro’ to Lomu.

When Lomu simply nodded, Fleck thought it appropriate that he should nod too.

I was very fortunate to get an exclusive interview with Lomu a few days after the 1995 World Cup final defeat. He was quietly spoken, humble, full of praise for the Springboks and awed by having met Nelson Mandela moments before the World Cup final kick-off. He had also fallen in love with South Africa.

Lomu, from my position in the press box, was like nothing I had ever seen from a winger. He broke tackles with such ease and he always took more than one defender out of the game.

Wallabies legend David Campese, who always wore 11 on his back, but played on the left and right wing and at fullback in the course of the 80 minutes, was exceptional in the late 1980s and peaked at the 1991 World Cup. I reported on him from 1992 to 1996 but he was no longer the same force, despite ending with 64 tries in 101 Test matches.

Australia’s Joe Roff, England’s Jason Robinson and Wales’s Shane Williams had x-factor and could fashion a score from nothing. I got to enjoy the skills of France’s Philippe Saint-Andre in 1993 and 1994 in South Africa and in New Zealand.  All Blacks Joe Rokocoko (left and right wing), Siti Sivivatu, Julian Savea and Rieko Ioane had massive try-scoring strikerates and France’s Aurelien Rougerie was powerful on the left wing before being converted to outside centre in the latter stages of his career. Fiji’s French-based Napolioni Nalaga and Nemani Nadolo were massive in French and European Club rugby but their international impact with Fiji was limited because club often favoured country.  All these players were impressive, but no left wing in the Lomu era, with the exception of Fijian Rupeni Caucaunibuca, quite had the presence of Lomu, which is why I had to find a place for Rupeni on the right wing.

WATCH: LOMU TRIBUTE

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3 thoughts on “Lomu & Habana the easiest of left wing picks

  1. Kelvin Abrahams says:

    Pieter Rossouw is very unlucky to have worn the same number on his back as Bryan Habana did. Slaptjips was pure class. A game changer. But Habana was a finisher of note. It wasn’t just his pace but his anticipation.

    Joe Roff is the only man worthy of challenging Lomu for the 11 jumper, and even he falls a fair way off the pace. Not sure where it went wrong for Julian Savea… I thought he was destined for great things.

    Honorable mention to Rory Underwood and Campo, but as you said, they were spent forces post 1992. Or more respectfully, had seen better days

    1. Keo says:

      Thanks Kelvin for taking an interest. Slappes a unique player but Habana was very special for a decade. Julia Savea’s almost sudden international finish consistent with so many of his predecessors with Island heritage, sensational from ages 19 to about 24 and then it is like they hit a wall. Most of them went onto enjoy another decade of top flight club rugby overseas but not good enough to beat off the international challenge of younger players.

      Joe Roff was a particularly good winger.

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