Boks: Gap still exists for Habana

2016-06-20 17:54
Bryan Habana

Cape Town – Sickly evidence from the Springboks’ first two Tests against Ireland only enhances the possibility that long-serving Bryan Habana could yet have a shelf life for the cause.

In unconvincing performances at Newlands (loss) and Emirates Airline Park (win) respectively, South Africa have been indifferently served for the most part by their starting wings in each game, JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo.

The latter showed his finishing ability with a fine try in the first Test from a well-timed infield burst, but the defensive side of his armoury, especially under the high bomb, was badly shown up in Johannesburg; it is one key reason why he has never really settled into a starting berth since making his debut in 2010 and it seems he has not banished his gremlins.

Mvovo was rather ingloriously subbed at halftime, making way for local hero Ruan Combrinck who promptly produced a dream 40 minutes on debut, with Pietersen shifting across to the left; the Lions man can hardly be overlooked for a maiden start now in the Port Elizabeth decider on Saturday.

Like Habana, the big-unit Pietersen is one of the increasingly rare survivors of the Boks’ last World Cup triumph in 2007, but he has been more lethargic than lethal over the course of the first two contests.

Although he has not quite turned 30, an event that occurs on July 12, I would argue that in many respects the 68-cap Pietersen almost looks more long-in-the-tooth than does Habana, who clicked over to a ripe old 33 a few days back, at international level.

People pooh-poohing Habana’s case for continued deployment are possibly guilty of short memories: he was typically industrious and sometimes still suitably slippery, too, at RWC 2015 in England, so there is no compelling ammunition yet to suggest he is all washed up as a Springbok.

We also need to give some respect to the “class is permanent” argument, as Habana more immediately tees up yet another significant honour in his rich first-class career after helping Toulon into the French Top 14 final at the weekend, eliminating Jake White’s Montpellier in one of the semis.

The showpiece – against Racing 92 -- is held in the novel setting of the Nou Camp soccer stadium in Barcelona, neighbouring Spain, on Friday.

Although Pietersen has no major need to prove his versatility – he has operated successfully on the left many times before – if Combrinck were to settle into the Bok berth on the right, it improves the case for saying Habana, so often the Boks’ specialist No 11 for almost a dozen years, is an ideal wing partner for the Test rookie further up the line in the even tougher demands of the Rugby Championship.

One quality you almost unfailingly get out of Habana in green and gold is herculean effort; if anything he has only upped his levels in that regard in recent times, mindful that he is no longer quite the out-and-out express of years gone by.

Certainly he way outshines someone like Mvovo for industry and alertness off the ball, including a pleasing ability to instinctively cover the opposite wing in times of real need.

Habana is also no slouch at winning tenacious turnovers -- an area where the Springboks have played disturbing second fiddle to the Irish so far.

Of course you cannot escape the fact that Habana is massively unlikely to go through to another World Cup in Japan in 2019, so that might be deemed one good reason not to extend his often illustrious Bok career.

But I believe he also remains too good to be summarily discarded on those ground alone, and that his vast experience, natural zest and passion and backline leadership qualities could come in useful in nurturing younger members of the Springbok back division over the course of the next year or two.

It is clearly going to be a challenging Rugby Championship for the Boks,  likely to be well less than favourites based on their June showings thus far, and the same could apply to their end-of-year trek to the northern hemisphere, where Habana’s “local knowledge” of the wintry conditions would be additionally beneficial.

There is also the extra little motivational matter of Habana (117 caps) still potentially being in with a stab at eclipsing long-time former Bok and Bulls colleague Victor Matfield’s record 127 appearances in the Test arena.

That may be really putting the cart before the horse, but in the shorter term it would bring some welcome stability to the Bok back three, I believe, if a certain BG Habana returned to the mix sooner rather than later …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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