• Boks brace for ‘dogfight’

    New Springbok vice-captain Bryan Habana has instructed his less experienced teammates to adopt a ‘dogfight mentality’ ahead of a bruising battle against Argentina, reports JON CARDINELLI in Nelspruit.

    Argentina at home. On the face of it, the Boks could not have asked for a more favourable start to their 2016 Rugby Championship campaign.

    The Boks are expected to win at the Mbombela Stadium this Saturday. They are expected to build some momentum ahead of their more testing fixtures in Salta, Brisbane and Christchurch.

    Those expectations, however, are tempered considerably when one casts an eye over the team sheet. Coach Allister Coetzee has named an inexperienced side for the Rugby Championship opener. Only five players in the starting XV have more than 20 Test caps.

    The back division is particularly short of experienced players. As a collective, they boast 153 caps. But as Coetzee himself pointed out on Thursday, that number is considerably boosted by the presence of Habana, who has 117 caps to his name.

    Coetzee has recalled the 33-year-old Habana for the Rugby Championship. The Bok coach hopes that the veteran winger will offset the lack of experience in the back division over the next few weeks.

    In fact, Coetzee has gone as far as to name Habana his vice-captain ahead of the opener against the Pumas.

    ‘Bryan will focus on his own performance, but he will also need to be mindful of the added responsibility,’ said the Bok coach. ‘[Flyhalf] Elton Jantjies must manage the backline, and Bryan must provide support.’

    Habana was not available for the recent Test series against Ireland due his commitment to the Springbok Sevens side. As fate would have it, he was not selected in the Blitzboks squad that eventually travelled to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

    And yet, as Coetzee confirmed on Thursday at the team announcement, Habana has long been part of the Bok coach’s plans. While Habana is unlikely to play all the way through to the 2019 World Cup, it is hoped that he will add some value in the short term as one of the few backs with extensive Test experience.

    ‘This is the first time that I’m the oldest player in the squad,’ Habana said with a laugh at the Bok team hotel on Thursday. ‘There have been a lot of jokes over the past few days, guys talking about helping me carry my wheelchair or crutches off the bus.’

    The seasoned player, who has enjoyed success with Toulon in Europe as well as the Boks and Bulls in South Africa, was more serious when he spoke about his new role and the path that lay ahead.

    ‘It’s a youthful backline, and I hope I can provide those players with a wealth of knowledge that they can take forward in future,’ he said.

    ‘Argentina never lie down, they compete until the very last minute. That’s my message to the younger guys who haven’t played against Argentina before. They need to adopt a dogfight mentality from minute one to minute 85.’

    Habana needs one try to claim the tier-one Test record for himself. At the moment, Habana and former Wallabies winger David Campese share the milestone with 64 tries apiece.

    Habana may add to his tally this Saturday. If the winger remains injury free, he may threaten that all-time record (69 tries by Japan’s Daisuke Ohata) over the next few months.

    This week, however, it appears as if Habana will focus on his new role as vice-captain.

    ‘I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been backed in the bad times and I believe that I have repaid the coaches’ faith in me,’ he said. ‘I went to France to experience something new and I was fortunate to be part of a successful team in Toulon.

    ‘Now I’m embracing this new challenge with a new and exciting Bok team. My first objective is to ensure that the team is successful.’

    Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images

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    Jon Cardinelli