Durban - For just short of two decades, the legendary Bryan Habana was the proud custodian of the Springbok No 11 jersey, and now that Makazole Mapimpi is continuing the magic in that same jumper, nobody is more thrilled than Habana himself.
Habana retired five years ago having scored a Springbok record of 67 tries in 124 Tests between 2004 and 2016) while Mapimpi has scored 19 times in just 24 Tests, drawing him level with the great Danie Gerber, who also scored his 19 tries in 24 Tests.
Mapimpi is something of a late bloomer, having made his international debut three years ago at age 27 after having almost been lost to top-flight rugby because of minimal opportunities in his youth in an impoverished East London township.
This difficult road to the very top of the game only adds to the charm of his achievements, reckons Habana.
“It is wonderful to see Makazole literally doing things that inspire so many,” Habana reflects. “I got to sit with him just over a year ago and heard his South African story, which speaks to most of the population — a very real, tangible story that impacts on how people see themselves and their country.
“One can’t be prouder of Makazole. Long may his try-scoring feats continue, hopefully he can keep contributing to the success of the Boks for some time to come, and I know he has going to break plenty of records.”
Probably Mapimpi’s most memorable try was his effort in the 2019 World Cup final against England and with that colossal struggle with England transferring to the Twickenham stage on Saturday, Habana is confident that Mapimpi will repeat his feat.
“I saw some very good things from the Boks against Scotland last week, to me they are getting close to the form they showed in that final two years ago,” Habana said. “At Murrayfield, I saw for the first time in a long time the backs using turnover possession to take the ball wide and they scored two tries that way. It was brilliant and if that trend continues I believe there will be some very pleased South African supporters around the world on Saturday night.”
The threat posed by the Springbok backline is underrated, according to Habana, who says that while the Bok pack rightly gets much credit, perhaps not enough kudos go to the backs.
“There was more to that World Cup final than the Bok forwards and the bomb squad,” he says. “Yes the forwards laid a magnificent foundation, but the decision-making of the backs and their individual brilliance was the deciding factor — Lukhanyo Am, Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe were simply brilliant
“Everybody knows what the DNA of the Boks is,” Habana explains. “Going into that final, we knew that a full set of forwards in the bomb squad coming on would make a huge difference, and it did, but the deciding factor in the final was that when opportunities presented themselves, the Boks were able to capitalise on them, and it was the backs that were phenomenal. I would love to see more of that this weekend.”
And Habana feels it is on the cards after the Boks shook off some rust in their tour opener against Wales to deliver a commanding performance in beating Scotland 30-15.
“People are saying that the Boks blew Scotland away in the second half but they also played really well in the first 20 minutes when they created good pressure,” he said. “For 60 of the 80 minutes the Boks were in total control of that match and they will go into this England game with a lot of confidence but also very wary of the threat England pose.
“I can’t see the Boks varying too much. They know they can draw on the past experience of the 2019 World Cup when they physically imposed themselves, and the bomb squad mentality is alive and well through the likes of Malcolm Marx, Vincent Koch, Steven Kitshoff and Franco Mostert, and then you have Frans Steyn recapturing the exuberance of his youth. To have someone who can come off the bench and kick 60m goals is extremely useful tactically, and the envy of world rugby.”
Perhaps some added motivation for the Boks is the snub they received from World Rugby in the Player of the Year nominations, where most critics expected Mapimpi, Eben Etzebeth and Siya Kolisi to be strong contenders, but there is not a South African in sight.
While Habana did not comment on the nominations, he did hail the great form of Kolisi this year.
“Siya has been phenomenal. He has been one of the players of the year globally, not just in South Africa,” Habana said. “Yes, he had a difficult start to the season (his form was not good for the Stormers and the Sharks) but take into consideration everything that happened over the last 18 months for him.
“He needed a mental break, he was doing so much with his wife Rachel for the Kolisi Foundation last year during the worst of the pandemic. He is a global figurehead for so many and that puts a lot of pressure on him. He needed time to recollect himself and focus on not only being a great rugby player but to also captain the Boks in a very tough series against the British and Irish Lions, and then the Rugby Championship
“It has been wonderful to see him playing so well and making such a massive impact while retaining his humility and grace — look at how he gave time to sign a fan’s speedo at Murrayfield — we should be so proud of a guy who is an inspiration on a global scale but remains absolutely true to his roots.
Bryan Habana is a Land Rover ambassador. Land Rover is a proud worldwide partner of Rugby World Cup 2023. @landroverza