Peter Bills: Habana's plight is bad for the game

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It may not be anyone's specific fault. But you have to say one of the saddest sights in world rugby right now is the crass inability of the Springboks to get Bryan Habana meaningfully involved in their game plan.

Beyond dispute, this boy is one of the most exciting players in world rugby. But for whatever reason, whether it is the approach of these Springboks (and their predecessors at the 2007 Rugby World Cup) or indeed the fault of the game itself, there is no way we are seeing the flying Habana at anything like his best.

When South Africa ran some good quality second phase ball deep in their own territory last Saturday against the All Blacks, you felt it was a situation tailor made for Habana to be released. Alas, the play was going toward JP Pietersen's wing, not Habana's, and besides, it became irrelevant when Jean de Villiers hoofed the ball downfield so far it rolled over the dead ball line.

Was that single act some kind of a death knell for an enterprising, open rugby philosophy of these Springboks? Have we been fooled into believing that, under Peter de Villiiers, the South Africans would expand their game in contrast to the highly rigid, very structured and formulaic game plan adopted by de Villiiers' predecessor Jake White for the World Cup? I am not sure, nor am I convinced this is solely a South African difficulty.

What I suspect is that de Villiiers has become no different to White; namely, pragmatic, fully aware of the pressures of Test rugby and the demands of his position. For how many would stand up and applaud if the Springboks lost most of their matches but Habana scored a hat full of tries? Few, one suspects, just like rugby supporters anywhere in the world.

But whatever the truth, it is a sad sight and crass waste of players with multi talents like those of Habana to see them almost entirely restricted to chasing kicks belted downfield or into the heavens, or running them back 10 or 15 metres before being engulfed. Is that all the world's top wings are good for in the modern game?

Releasing a player like Habana seems to have become a lost art within the Springboks team. Sure, the Blue Bulls managed it during an era which has brought them two Super 14 titles. But once he gets into the Springbok side, it is as though Habana is largely forgotten.

The ‘Boks' strategy rarely involves him getting the ball in his hands in any kind of serious space. The one pass he received during the World Cup final was just a yard from the touchline. Yet Habana is potentially one of the most lethal runners and finishers in the game today. Few have ever possessed his burning pace, his searing speed and dynamic ability to switch his running line at top pace. It just seems such an absurd waste of so valuable a player to ignore him in an attacking sense.

But one reason for it is the preponderance in the modern game of kicking. Most kicks downfield are replied in kind; few full-backs seem willing or able to attack, ball in hand. Yet a player like Rob Kearney, the Ireland and Lions full-back, demonstrated on the recent tour of South Africa that it is perfectly possible to run the ball out from the back and make some significant inroads into the advancing defence.

But to capitalise on the pace of wings like Bryan Habana, a side needs vision and courage from all its back three players, a commitment to look up and play what is in front of them, not slavishly kick the ball away every time like automatons.

Habana's isolation is a sad and shocking indictment of the modern game. Habana hasn't lost either his pace or his genius. But he isn't a magician. He needs others to set him up. Right now, that doesn't even begin to look like happening.