Bryan Habana gave a masterclass of modern wing play in South Africa’s five try victory over Australia at Pretoria. Habana’s three tries were impressive, but his speed of thought and extraordinary work rate were from another dimension.
The All Blacks coaches say that they want Julian Savea to become more involved in the game. Then sit Savea down and take him through Habana’s performance against the Aussies. Habana did so much in that game that he was actually blowing in the final ten minutes. There was a case for replacing a wing through exhaustion.
Habana was involved in everything that was good about South Africa. When Kirchner scored South Africa’s first try, Habana was in at first receiver, holding the defence with a couple of stutter steps and then throwing a perfect pass off his left hand.
When Goosen so nearly scored, Habana was first in at the ruck on the line, clearing a man and driving his fly half nearer the line. Habana then started and finished South Africa’s second try. He used that searing acceleration to run between two forwards and get his team way over the gain line. He then finished the move by running a brilliant inside line off scrum-half Ruan Pienaar.
Habana was the midfield dummy runner when Kirchner nearly scored his second try. He was mentally ahead of his colleagues a couple of times in the second half, once making a break that Pienaar reacted a shade slowly to and then making a run that would have led to a try if his scrum-half had seen it in time.
Habana still scored a couple more tries himself. The final try was a straightforward winger’s run-in, but the middle try was an absolute gem. It was all about footballing intelligence. When Kurtley Beale threw a terrible pass in midfield, many a defensive winger might have grabbed at the ball and been bundled over the touchline.
Summing up his position perfectly, Habana let the ball roll into touch. He then picked it up, moved his body round Mike Harris who was attempting to block him, and took a quick throw to his hooker. Habana sped infield, took a return inside pass and left Ioane and Shipperley wondering what was happening. As Habana dotted down under the posts Pat McCabe slid in, an act of desperate admiration, and Habana hurdled even that attempt. The winger is quick, but his speed of thought is even faster.
But those tries were just the exclamation marks on Habana’s performance. When South Africa drove a lineout in the second half, Habana bided his moment and then stepped in, locking onto the isolated Francois Lowe, and driving him over the line for the try.
He saved two tries in defence. For one, Habana read a brilliant Australian lineout move and raced in to manhandle Polota Nau towards the touchline. Speed, strength and anticipation saved an almost certain try. He then stepped in as Gill and Hooper drove at the line and had the power to stop the Aussie flankers in their tracks. Habana is a very, very strong man.
Habana’s reading of the game in defence is as brilliant as his attacking angles. Time and again he stepped into space and snuffed out an overlap. One such tackle on Hooper provided turnover ball, something that Habana wins a great deal of himself. He is so quick and so strong over the ball, that at times he seems like a mini Pocock.
The great South African centre Danie Gerber once remarked to me that Habana doesn’t have much of a sidestep. There may be some truth in that. Habana is not Gerald Davies. But then TGR would happily admit that he couldn’t do some of the things that Habana does.
The man is a marvel. He has scored six of his countries eleven tries in the Rugby Championship, from a variety of skills. There was the try against Argentina when he jumped above the defence to collect Steyn’s cross kick. There was the try against Australia in the first test when Habana drove over from a ruck like a nuggety prop. And there was the piece of brilliance against New Zealand in Dunedin when he angled a run off a lineout and then collected his own quite exquisite chip ahead.