Could it be that two of South Africa’s greatest rugby players might never be seen in the green-and-gold again? Could it be that the pair will shuffle off with barely a goodbye?
It’s a staggering thought, but when the squad for the Rugby Championship was announced last weekend, the exclusion of wings Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen was hardly mentioned.
The rate of change in rugby might be rapid, but it seems almost indecent that more hasn’t been made of the duo no longer being part of the great tribe.
Habana has been a fixture at Toulon for four years, while Pietersen has just joined him after a brief tenure at Leicester. They’re miles away, in thought and in distance, in seems.
The last of Habana’s record 124 Tests was the shambolic match against Italy where he book-ended his remarkable record, dotting down for the 67th time.
Pietersen’s final game came the week before, against England, when he earned his 70th cap.
Officially, nothing has changed with the two. Habana, in fact, recently said he would continue to be available, but he’s not quite sitting at home waiting for the call. Pietersen, too, made it clear that he’s just a phone call away, but knows it’s unlikely to come.
Habana is 34 with plenty of miles on his clock. Pietersen, a Sharks legend after 10 years in Durban, is 31 and he too has more of his career in the rear-view mirror.
Both earned World Cup winners’ medals in 2007, but they were always worth more than their places.
For years, Habana, especially, represented the aspirations of South Africa’s black community. He was explosive and deadly from the start and fast became an automatic choice. He was even adored at Loftus Versfeld, where he wore the light blue for five years.
He was everything you wanted in a wing: fast, cunning, dexterous and instinctive. He had size, too, and attacking players weren’t keen to fly down his channel. Habana thrived in the big moments; the greater the pressure, the better he was.
He was named the world’s best player a decade ago and for a couple of years, he could lay claim to being the best finisher in the game.
Indeed, if Frik du Preez was officially SA’s player of the 20th century, Habana would have a claim to being the best player of the 21st. He has meant that much to the cause, a match winner without compare, and a talisman.
Pietersen was a different beast. Large by South African wing standards (105kg), he was far more than a crash-baller, his size betraying a deceptive swerve and serious pace. He had a formidable work-rate, and he and Habana appeared in harness together a record 25 times for the Springboks.
He was a favourite of the Sharks, who had good reason to enjoy him given that his uncle, Christie Noble, had famously blazed the path for his nephew to burst through when he starred on the wing when Natal won their first Currie Cup title in 1990.
The trouble with rugby is that few players officially retire from the Springboks. For most, their names suddenly no longer appear on the team list.
There is no fanfare, no goodbye, no thanks for coming. A couple of players cleverly orchestrate their retirements, but these are typically those who have sated their hunger.
They know when they’re done and they exit on their own terms. They’re the lucky ones.
Players like Habana and Pietersen aren’t done, but the new wave has already been ushered in with players like Ruan Combrinck, Courtnall Skosan, Dillyn Leyds and Raymond Rhule making their way.
The certainty that Habana and Pietersen will never wear the Bok jersey again also becomes clear with the Boks relying less and less on their overseas contingent.
Just one foreign-based player is in the current squad, a clear sign that a line has been drawn in the sand, as has been the case with the All Blacks for many years.
Sentiment is thus tossed to the winds. We’ll have to console ourselves with the highlights on YouTube and elsewhere to remind us just how special the wingmen were.
Thanks for the ride, guys.