No matter where your allegiances lay in the the first Rugby World Cup semi-final, you’d have to feel for Bryan Habana, one of the great South African wingers, who is unlikely to be seen at this level again.
No doubt Habana was hoping to have a major impact on this game. But it wasn’t to be and all he can play for now is to decide third and fourth place honours. Equalling Jonah Lomu’s record of 15 World Cup tries is poor consolation because he will never be talked of in the same class as Lomu.
Habana had the worst of games, a real nightmare. Early on, as the All Blacks rumbled towards the South African line, Habana chose to advance early to try and effect an interception but he ended up tackling Richie McCaw after he had passed the ball. As a result, he left young Lood de Jager as the last bastion of defence to face two All Blacks forwards, Jerome Kaino ball in hand, with Dane Coles running in support on the right.
De Jager went for Kaino as the All Blacks flanker switched to the right with Coles taking the inner track, but he was too late. Kaino, tough as nails, shoved him off and scored what would be the first of two tries in the game. This is de Jager’s first World Cup, and Habana’s third, so it is fair to expect that the senior man should have acted more prudently. Fullback Willie le Roux arrived on the scene after the deed was done.
When Daniel Carter was taking the conversion for this try, Habana charged out of his blocks well before Carter had even moved to take his kick. The All Black five-eighth kicked the ball wide of the posts but got a second chance at the conversion because of Habana’s illegal move. He got the two points on the second try.
Habana had a few good runs to collect high balls, but these were small returns for such a talented man. South Africa wasn’t playing a running game at all, so he was restricted to doing these things and occasionally foraging for the ball in the ruck.
Then, in the second half, Habana reached across the ruck divide to tap the ball from Aaron Smith’s hands, an illegal act that he should have known was prohibited. He not only yielded a penalty but was given a 10-minute rest in the bin as well.
To his mortification, he had to first witness the All Blacks score a second try — which gave them the lead that they never surrendered again — before he had to listen to referee Jerome Garces’ standard lecture and have a yellow card flashed in his face.
There will also be bad memories for another veteran, Victor Matfield. Matfield, 37, came out to play the last 20 minutes of the game, joining a bunch of South African forwards who had done extremely well in the scrums but seen New Zealand repeatedly pilfer the ball in the lineouts.
Though Matfield did win a couple of lineouts, he lost a crucial throw to young Sam Whitelock, 10 years his junior, with South Africa close to the All Blacks line.
(Incidentally, on the field at the time was Keven Mealamu, who burrowed his way past Matfield when the teams met in the 2003 quarter-final to score the try that sealed New Zealand’s passage into the last four of that tournament.)
Matfield also suffered the ignominy of knocking on in the last play of the game, an act that ended the game, at a time when South Africa needed to run the ball and get it down to the opposite end of the field.