VIDEO: Habana - Boks will be ready for British brutes
Bryan Gary Habana believes the three-Test series between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions could match the 2009 version for sheer drama – on the field.
It may be a very different series – mainly the result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which will result in the absence of traveling fans and spectators.
However, Habana believes there will still be enough intrigue, physical brutality, and drama on the field to make it a special series.
Speaking at a pre-tour event to highlight the Tackle HIV campaign – an initiative driven by retired Welsh and B&I Lions great Gareth Thomas – Habana felt the South African team will be up for the challenge, even though they have not played as a team since their World Cup triumph in November 2019.
The B&I Lions play Japan in a curtain-raiser in Edinburgh on Saturday, before heading to South Africa – with the first of the three Tests in Cape Town on July 24.
Habana, during the online event, said he thinks the Boks will win 2-1, hoping they clinch it in the third Test.
The 38-year-old – who played in a record 124 Tests, scored 67 tries, won a World Cup (2007) and was a key member of the victorious 2009 Bok team – said for the players the series will be “massive”, despite the absence of spectators and the teams living in bio bubbles for six weeks.
“Every player – be that the B&I Lions or the Springboks – will give everything to the jersey and to the cause],” he told @rugby365com.
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“The experience, from a player perspective, will be very different.
“These last 18 months have been very different for all of us,” he said of the impact of COVID-19.
He added that the Boks are eager to get back onto the international stage, having missed out on Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship.
“It is the first time in South African rugby history where we have a succession plan,” he said of Jacques Nienaber taking over from Rassie Erasmus as head coach – after serving as an assistant in 2018 and 2019.
“He [Nienaber] knows 80 percent of that squad that will play in the first Test [against the B&I Lions].
“The players will be leaving everything out on the field.
“It won’t be the same as 2009, because of the absence of fans, but it won’t take away anything from the monumental occasion that is the B&I Lions.
“I am hoping that the onfield performances lean themselves to an incredible series.”
The former World Rugby Player of the Year believes South Africa does have the muscle to match the brutes of the British and Irish tourists.
Habana said the Bok squad that won the World Cup in 2019 – the likes of Steven Kitshoff, Mbongeni Mbonambi, Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit – along with Euro-based Boks like Jean-Luc and Dan du Preez will give the hosts that much-deed hard edge.
Then there are backs like Francois de Klerk and Damian de Allende, who were also outstanding in European competitions this past year.
“I know there’s this mindset that the South African team hasn’t had international exposure,” Habana said, adding: “The core of that team has been getting international exposure in Europe, France and Japan.
“I am not worried about the physicality.
“Having seen the work put in, behind the scenes, for the series, I have no doubt the physicality will be there from the Boks.
“That [physicality] is where the Boks were at their strongest during that World Cup Final in 2019.
“We will see physicality from the Springboks.”
He added that even if Duane Vermeulen is ruled out with an ankle injury – after undergoing surgery – the Bok muscle will be there in the form of the Du Preez brothers, Dan and Jean-Luc, along with Jasper Wiese.
“I am extremely excited.
“The B&I Lions will look to ensure Warren Gatland becomes the first Lions coach not to lose a series in three back-to-back tours.
“The on-field performances will make this special.”
Habana said, given what happened since March 2020 and where the game finds itself mid-pandemic, the tour is just what South Africa needs.
“I am battling to understand if we can call it a tour, without traveling fans or fans in the stadiums,” the 38-year-old retired Bok wing said.
“It is not a tour as we know it, but the South African players are champing at the bit – as they haven’t played [as a team] since November 2019.
“It is sad that the players won’t get to experience the traveling fans, it is sad we won’t have the camaraderie like 2009, that the Lions don’t get to travel to different provinces.
“[However,] I am grateful that it is going ahead, because South Africa needs it – given the status of the game in SA
He also spoke about the unifying factor that the Springboks have on the country.
There is the Siyamthanda Kolisi story, who made history as South Africa’s first black Test captain – leading the Springboks to World Cup glory in Japan two years ago.
“I was fortunate enough to be in Japan and I got pretty emotional the week leading up to the final, talking about the Siya Kolisi story,” Habana told the Tackle HIV online gathering.
“Talking about Siya having to watch the 2007 Final in a shebeen, a local pub in the rural townships, because his grandmother didn’t have a TV.
“He wasn’t worried about the rugby, he went to school the next day not for education but just to get a meal because that was going to be his only meal for the day.
“It’s something that if you don’t understand it’s very difficult to relay.”
Habana added: “I do think the Lions have a unique history, and the players that represent that want to do the jersey proud.
“But as Rassie Erasmus [South Africa’s World Cup-winning coach] aptly put it, pressure is not playing for your country, pressure is knowing where your next meal is coming from.”
* Tackle HIV, a campaign led by Gareth Thomas in partnership with ViiV Healthcare and the Terrence Higgins Trust, aims to tackle the stigma and misunderstanding around HIV. For more information visit tacklehiv.org and follow @tacklehiv