Bryan Habana says the experience of playing club rugby in France has renewed his passion for the game, reports JON CARDINELLI in Edinburgh.
The perception that a player needs to remain in South Africa for the national team to prevail is deeply flawed, as there are countless examples of players, and coaches, benefiting from stints abroad.
The Bok captain Jean de Villiers has said that his time at Munster during the 2009-10 season made him a better international player. John Smit, another former Bok skipper and current CEO at the Sharks, has effectively taken a successful Saracens blueprint and tweaked it since rejoining the Durban-based union in 2013.
A NEW CHALLENGE
Habana is one of the latest players to head north in search of a different cultural and playing experience. He may not have played much since joining Toulon (a hamstring injury incurred in the Rugby Championship has limited his involvement), but he has already been charmed by the different way of life in France and, of course, challenged by the different brand of rugby.
As the Bok winger explains, this should ultimately make him a better player. The French domestic competition as well as the European Cup boasts some of the finest international players, and mixing with these stars will force Habana to raise his own game.
'Playing alongside players who have achieved the highest honours in world rugby, seeing their work ethic, the way they prepare on and off the field, has been special,' said Habana, from the Boks' base in Edinburgh on Wednesday. 'Seeing a guy like Jonny Wilkinson come in on a Saturday for three hours to train has been mind-blowing for me. Matt Giteau is an absolute character off the field, but seeing his work ethic in training sessions, it's been phenomenal.
'So after nine great years in South Africa, I think a new challenge is definitely something that refreshes you. I haven't played much, but then getting my first game and experiencing the Mayol crowd, it was great.
'And now it's an honour and privilege to be part of the Springbok set-up again. As Bakkies Botha says, each and every time you come back now, it is something you will treasure.'
CLASS OF 2009 REUNION
The Boks were ranked No 1 in the world in 2009, and it was during that monumental season when Habana and several other world-class backs were at the peak of their powers.
That class of 2009 – bar Frans Steyn, who was then at fullback but is not on the current tour – reunited for the first time since 2011 this Saturday.
Many of those players are now based in France or Japan, and it clearly took some time for the combination to settle. But when they did combine, they produced something special, as was seen with the Boks' first and third tries. Habana believes the combination will only grow stronger over the course of this tour and over the next two years.
'Our backline got cut twice early on, and after that there was a bit more communication,' said Habana, recalling the clash with Wales. 'That's usual; when guys from different set-ups come together for the first time, it takes time to settle.
'Those seven players who started in Cardiff are world class. Take Jaque Fourie, he is probably the most consistent performer for the Boks over the past 10 years. Whenever he's got the opportunity to wear the Bok jersey, he has never disappointed.
'JP Pietersen has come a long way from 2006 when he was first picked to play fullback against Australia. He's a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, who's always committed to the cause. We've seen what a difference Fourie du Preez has made since returning, and Morné Steyn has bounced back this season. Pat Lambie also did OK when he had to shift to flyhalf during the game.
'It was good having some old heads, and again being led by a very inspirational captain [Jean de Villiers], a guy who puts his body on the line. It's exciting to have those names working together, but at the same time we know that you still have to go out and get the right result. As senior players, you also want to create a culture where the youngsters not only look up to you, but follow your lead.'
NO DANGER OF COMPLACENCY
Habana reiterated that the Boks would need to improve on last week's showing, and that Scotland shouldn't be underestimated. The Scots surprised a complacent side in Nelspruit earlier this year, and while the result of that game was never in doubt, it did expose the Boks' complacent attitude.
'Playing at home in conditions that suit them, they are going to be tough to beat,' said Habana. 'So there is respect for them before the game and there will be respect for them in the game.
'They had a big influence at the breakdown in that last game, and for us it's important to improve each and every week. There's a lot that we weren't happy with in Cardiff last Saturday.
'One or two lucky bounces saw us beating Wales. The mental preparation will be important for this week's game. You have to be prepared to go for 85 minutes. It was an OK start to the tour last week, and obviously we want to improve and go on to win three from three.'
Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
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