Saluting rugby legends

Appreciate what the legends of the game have achieved, writes MARK KEOHANE in SA Rugby magazine.

Don’t remember a player just for his last game. It’s wrong and, thankfully in the case of rugby legends Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, enough YouTube tributes have appeared in the last month to remind us of this quartet’s special talent.

Rugby Championship matches won’t be the same with no mighty McCaw at the breakdown, no DC controlling proceedings at No 10 and no JdV or Habana in green and gold.

Carter will play on in the French Top 14 but his brilliance has come more in Test rugby than it has in the colours of the Crusaders.

The flyhalf is a 2011 World Cup winner, even though injury ended his tournament before the quarter-finals. He has said on record that he would have wanted to play a more influential role in the 2011 World Cup, but in my book he was very instrumental in New Zealand’s successful campaign. Carter’s display against the French in the pool stage was excellent, if you watched it on TV. If you were at the ground, as I was privileged to be, the manner of Carter’s game management was exceptional.

The highlights package of Carter’s Test career would never include his 102nd Test against Scotland late last year. Carter was trying to play himself back into form too early after a broken leg. It didn’t work out and the Carter who ended the 2015 Super Rugby season with the Crusaders is the Carter who holds a special place at the table of the game’s finest ever No 10s.

I fancy him to go out with an international flourish, just as I do McCaw and Habana. I am more hopeful than convinced Jean de Villiers’s comeback will be as colourful.

McCaw is just a rugby freak – and the word is used in the most flattering and reverential of ways. He has won everything as an All Black and continues to show the enthusiasm of one yet to play a Test. No player is likely to challenge an international record that, going into Saturday's Rugby Championship decider, read: played 140, lost 14. He is the only player to have 100 Test and Super Rugby wins. As a player and captain he has beaten the Springboks and Wallabies 46 times in 59 Tests.

McCaw, at 34, has had to evolve and adapt his game to survive but if you want a true reflection of his game over the past 15 years, go and study some of those tributes. Wow, he was potent on attack and his 27 Test tries are more than most international wings score in a career.

Carter’s Test against the British & Irish Lions in 2005 is the stuff of folklore, but with footage to reinforce the awestruck purple prose of those of us who revere him as the finest No 10 in the professional game, and quite possibly the best flyhalf to have ever played Test rugby. He has lost just 11 Tests in 104 and some of his best performances have been against the Springboks in South Africa.

Habana and De Villiers don’t quite have the individual Test records to match Carter and McCaw but they have produced the individual performances to rightly claim legendary status in a sport in which greatness is too easily anointed on players. In this instance, it isn’t a description that is misplaced. They are great, all four of them.

I remember watching Habana scrap and fight for international survival in 2010 and 2011. He spent the best part of a Test season searching for that one try to take him past Joost van der Westhuizen’s South African record. He eventually got it – at North Harbour Stadium against Namibia. It was a painful process, watching such a superstar struggle so much.

Greatness is not just in the highs of a player, but also in how they come back, and Habana’s greatness has been his form for the Springboks and European champions Toulon and his refusal to walk away when the international going got tough.

Habana is more mature than the speedster who dazzled during the Boks’ successful 2007 World Cup campaign. He has had to adapt his game, but he is no less important or significant.

Similarly De Villiers. The Bok captain has done it all. He, like Carter, is a World Cup winner, although he, like Carter, doesn’t ever talk of himself as a World Cup winner because injury in the Boks’ opening game in 2007 ruled him out of the rest of the tournament.

De Villiers has defied everyone and everything to make it back from what seemed like a career-ending knee injury against Wales eight months ago. Remember him for the player he was and for the fight he has shown should the quality of the comeback not quite match the qualities it took to make that comeback.

Similarly Habana, Carter and McCaw. 

– This column first appeared in the August 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Gallo Images