Ageing Bok wings: JP looks safer

2016-05-10 13:27
JP Pietersen (AP)

Cape Town - By the time their main business of the year, the Castle Lager Rugby Championship, begins for the Springboks against Argentina at Mbombela Stadium on August 20, longtime first-choice wings Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen will both be thirtysomethings with a combined age of 63.

The particularly decorated Habana turns 33 in mid-June, whilst Pietersen, a fellow World Cup-winner in 2007, finally clicks over in the thirties himself in July.

This duo have been a trusty firm for the country in jerseys 11 and 14 respectively for the vast majority of the last 10 years since Pietersen made his debut, two after Habana, in 2006.

Both still boast quite powerful cases - given their virtually indisputable, proven international class and minimal signs of waning lustre - for extended usage under the new Allister Coetzee-led regime.

Yet the head coach will be well aware of their now reasonably distant birthdates and likely to be wondering whether both can be accommodated in the key “flier” positions where at least some element of spring-heeled youth tends to be a wise course of action.

In that regard, Pietersen holds the obvious advantage of being three years younger than Habana, who is nevertheless only a tantalising 11 caps shy of eclipsing Victor Matfield (127) to become the most capped Bok in history - a further fine feather to add to his cap as he is already top try-scorer with 64.

The question Coetzee will have to ask himself, if not doing so already, is whether it is worth sticking to the status quo in the wide berths for the time being, when clearly Habana and possibly even Pietersen aren’t going to make it through to another World Cup in Japan in 2019.

A further complication is that renowned Sharks speed merchant – but perhaps less consistently defensively stout? – Lwazi Mvovo, who was the next-in-line wing in former SA coach Heyneke Meyer’s RWC 2015 squad, isn’t quite as much of a spring chicken as some may imagine.

The rather in-and-out Test player, who has fitfully accumulated 15 Test caps since debut against Scotland in a Murrayfield quagmire in 2010, turns 30 on June 3, a few days ahead of the three-game June home series against Ireland.

At least his cause is helped by the absence for those assignments of Habana, who has long been the main stumbling block to his inclusion in the starting XV; Coetzee revealed as much at his inauguration as head coach recently.

The Toulon-contracted Habana is supposedly in the frame for a spot in the Blitzbokke ranks at the Rio Olympics Sevens, although that is also shrouded in some uncertainty as he is reportedly struggling with niggling injuries and in doubt for the three-week June training camp under Neil Powell’s tutelage that is considered mandatory for anyone wishing to get on the plane to Brazil.

Sevens participation or not, Habana probably realises that by missing Coetzee’s first series in charge, he is making it more difficult for himself to be reintroduced for the Rugby Championship.

Does he even have a future at all in green and gold, then?

Counting in his favour, you would imagine, is the very fact that Coetzee has taken the Bok reins; they have worked together successfully before, when “Toetie” was an assistant coach to Jake White during the productive 2007 World Cup, and later at the Stormers/WP.

Habana also - perhaps tellingly - did not specifically shut his personal “book” on the Boks after RWC 2015.

At an advanced stage of that tournament, I asked Habana in London about a possible extended role into 2016 and beyond and he appeared fairly fulsome in his hints that he desired pressing on.

“I said before this tournament that I wouldn’t make a call until afterwards about where I think my international career can go (no emotional retirement announcement followed - Sport24).

“A lot of people say you know when the end is near … to be honest, I don’t think it’s quite there yet for me. I will always be a massive honour and privilege to wear that green and gold jersey... I will never take that for granted and hopefully I can continue doing that for a while longer.”

He may have shed some of the outright nippiness of his heyday, but Habana continues to make up in experience and great game-reading ability - he is an ever-alert cover defender on the opposite channel, for instance - what he has sacrificed in the gas department.

Then again, not being in the Super Rugby limelight in the build-up to a Test season can be an unwritten drawback, and in that respect Pietersen - albeit in his final season with the Sharks before a switch to Leicester loyalty - made a very timely statement of intent on Saturday.

Not only did he confirm his continued predatory touch by scoring a try either side of halftime in a tremendous home victory over the Hurricanes, but he generally got the better on the day of their All Blacks stick of dynamite Julian Savea in a direct tussle.

His physical dimensions (1.91m, 106kg) are also not to be pooh-poohed in a season when, once again, the Boks could face some fast-moving, tree-trunk units out wide during the course of the Championship.

Right now, I’d argue that Pietersen looks more of a shoe-in than Habana does for starting places in that competition.

Nevertheless, the extended Bok squad also seems overdue for at least one new, younger face in the wing category this year.

For the record, pretty routine Lions 2016 standout Ruan Combrinck, a clever and purposeful all-round footballer who runs some imaginative lines, has only shifted to the requirement of blowing out 26 candles on a cake with his name on it on the very day you read this.

There, at least, lies a potential Bok wing with a healthy prospect of availability, if found to be good enough at the elevated level, throughout a four-year cycle to another World Cup...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana (Gallo Images)


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