Johannesburg - Do you remember when Bryan Habana burst on to the scene around 10 years ago? He was a promising scrumhalf, but very soon found himself in the centres for the Golden Lions. Today he is one of the world’s best, if not the best, wings playing the game.
Habana’s crowning as SA Rugby Player of the Year late last week - for the third time - is something that deserves far more attention than it’s been given. It is a quite remarkable achievement considering where Habana was as a player in 2010 and 2011, and the fact only the legendary Naas Botha has won the title more times, on four occasions.
Habana battled for form in 2010 and 2011 and was very nearly dropped from the Springbok squad ahead of the World Cup last year - in fact, then coach Peter de Villiers was under immense pressure to play someone else on the wing.
De Villiers persisted with Habana and even though the wing never found his groove, at the World Cup, he returned to form this season in spectacular fashion, shining not only for the Stormers in Super Rugby, but for the Springboks as well.
And, considering the style of game the Boks have played this year, with very little ball moving down the backline and the outside men at times reduced to being virtual spectators, the fact that Habana, a wing, has shone as brightly as he has is quite unbelievable. But the thing is Habana is so much more of a player than the try-scorer everyone expects him to be.
It is his fearlessness under the high ball, his dedicated chase of the up-and-under, his solid tackling and his work rate at the breakdowns that sets him apart. And then, of course, he has that rare ability to find the smallest of holes in the opposition defence and his blistering pace allows him to regularly slice through the defences.
When he’s on form, as he’s been this season, he’s an awesome rugby player who makes a massive contribution to the team he’s playing in. And over the next three weekends, with the Boks playing in Europe, he will be sorely missed.
It is a very young side that coach Heyneke Meyer has been forced to pick, with not a lot of experience or settled combinations - and Habana’s absence is sure to be felt.
Just as the Bok forwards aren’t quite the same as when Schalk Burger and Juan Smith are fit and playing, so too the backs don’t look the same without Habana - or Jaque Fourie or Frans Steyn or Fourie du Preez for that matter.