Cape Town – Much of the Springbok pre-match fanfare this week has understandably revolved around the confirmed final Test in South Africa for captain Adriaan Strauss on Saturday.
But when the Boks take on the might of New Zealand in the Castle Rugby Championship at Kings Park on Saturday (17:05), there must be at least a reasonable chance that legendary wing Bryan Habana will be wearing the green and gold in the country for a last occasion as well.
There are no special signs, it should be noted, to suggest that the second most-capped Springbok (Saturday will be his 123rd appearance, taking him tantalisingly closer to Victor Matfield’s 127) is going to pull the plug on his illustrious international career imminently.
Still, is there any symbolism to be read into the fact that Habana will supposedly revert to his beloved No 11 jersey and more customary place on the left this week, with Francois Hougaard moving across to the right wing for the Durban clash?
Assuming he stays on board for the three Tests on the traditional end-of-year tour of the northern hemisphere – England, Italy and Wales – Habana should advance to within one game of emulating the lineout maestro.
Beyond that, however, is pretty difficult to predict: the Boks will not be back in action until the middle of 2017, which is also roughly when their runaway record try-scorer (66 and counting) will turn 34; his birthday is on June 12.
Almost inevitably, there has been a certain fading of the Habana light already, even as his experience has been an asset – sometimes under-appreciated perhaps -- in this difficult, still early phase of Allister Coetzee’s coaching tenure featuring plenty of callow new faces in the team and squad.
The Toulon-based campaigner has travelled an awfully long road since his Bok debut back in November 2004, and the sands of time on his speed and general sharpness are inevitably beginning to run out.
Habana has been typically committed, if not massively compelling, in his appearances during 2016, although in fairness opportunities for him to punch holes on attack have been curtailed by considerable uncertainty to the Bok game-plan.
A staunch devotee of the “class is permanent” school, I believe stretching his Test career into next year is not beyond the bounds of feasibility, even if some critics may feel otherwise.
When I specifically asked Habana at a London media briefing during an advanced stage of the World Cup, almost exactly a year ago, about his ongoing Bok future from that juncture, he opened up in an appealingly expansive, quite philosophical way, simultaneously indicating the competitive fire that still burns inside him.
Among many other things, he said: “I’ve always wanted to be a player wishing to continue improving. Until the day I hang up my boots, I don’t believe I will ever be a finished product.
“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. It will always be a massive honour and privilege to wear that green and gold jersey, to run out with a band of 22 brothers.”
Suitably fighting talk, and Habana is more than entitled to offer it.
But there is also likely to be increased pressure, come 2017, for the Boks to begin shaping their plans more intensively for RWC 2019 in Japan -- when Habana almost indisputably won’t be around! -- and maybe also renewed insistence that home-based players be prioritised.
Younger wings like Ruan Combrinck (currently injured, following encouraging early strides for the Boks), Courtnall Skosan, Travis Ismaiel and Leolin Zas may well be challenging particularly fiercely by then for international honours, and there are still the claims of a certain JP Pietersen of Leicester (some three years younger than Habana) to contemplate.
That is why Bok fans might think about lavishing the great Habana with unusual levels of appreciation and encouragement against the fiercest of bilateral rivals on Saturday, just in case the match proves some sort of poignant landmark in his rich, SA-soil saga …
*For the record, Habana has played 24 of his swollen tally of Tests against New Zealand, all of them starts, and been on the winning side eight times – one of those being the lone prior Durban Test he’s played against them, the 31-19 triumph in August 2009 when Morne Steyn registered all 31 points including a try.
He has played eight Tests in total at Kings Park, featuring five wins, a draw and two reverses.
15 Pat Lambie, 14 Francois Hougaard, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Julian Redelinghuys, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Willem Alberts, 21 Jaco Kriel, 22 Lionel Mapoe, 23 Willie le Roux
15 Ben Smith, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Joe Moody
Substitutes: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Liam Squire, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 George Moala
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