By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) – As a former Rugby World Cup winning winger himself, it comes as no surprise that Bryan Habana wants to see the ball in the hands of current South African fliers Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi in Sunday’s semi-final against Wales.
However, Habana, who is the joint highest try scorer in a single World Cup, is also a pragmatist and would be happy to see the Springboks stick to their tight, physical forwards play if it meant delivering a third title.
Sunday’s opponents Wales have identified Kolbe as the South African dangerman and there have been some calls for head coach Rassie Erasmus to expand the play and involve his wide men more.
However, Habana, who won the World Cup with South Africa in 2007, stressed that with four successive wins en route to the semi-finals, Erasmus’ tactics have so far paid off.
“For me, as a winger, you love to get your hands on the ball and I know both Cheslin and Makazole… would love to be getting their hands on the ball,” Habana told Reuters on Thursday.
“But, within a team context, I think they understand their roles and responsibilities, and they are doing that incredibly well. When they get an opportunity to finish, they finish it off.
“I think we would all love to see the ball getting to the wings a lot more (but) in a World Cup year, where the margins are just so fine, do I mind if they don’t but the team is winning? Probably not.”
The diminutive Kolbe has been one of the stories of the World Cup, having thrilled supporters with his quick feet and electrifying pace.
A member of the South African sevens team that won bronze at the Rio 2016 Olympics, Kolbe only made his test debut last year, having been left out by the previous regime, partly due to playing his club rugby in Europe.
Since then, he has scored seven tries in 13 test matches and combined with Mapimpi, who has already scored five times in Japan, forms a constant threat on the Springboks’ flanks.
“For me looking at Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi it has really been, I wouldn’t say a breath of fresh air, but it has been really enjoyable to see the manner in which they have approached the game,” said Habana.
“Cheslin, for me, perfectly fits the description of dynamite comes in small packages and I have been saying it over the last 18 months: he has been lighting up fields around Europe, the world.
“In Europe, we have seen him absolutely dominate and be as dazzling as any other player.”
Kolbe leads a group of smaller fliers, including Welshman Josh Adams and Japanese pairing Kenki Fukuoka and Kotaro Matsushima, in lighting up the tournament and changing perceptions of what is needed from a modern winger.
Habana is pleased at this evolution.
“I think, if you are good, it doesn’t matter what size you are and you can get onto the international stage,” said Habana.
“It is brilliant to see guys like Cheslin and Makazole doing well, because in South Africa, we had the likes of Gio Aplon, who potentially didn’t get that much exposure because of his size.
“Now all of a sudden (there are) these guys that are exciting, that are scintillating, that have dazzling feet, who are incredibly quick and nippy and can cause absolute havoc for defences.
“Going forward it is not about what size of rugby player you are, it is actually what goods you can produce on the field.”
Habana’s eight tries at the 2007 World Cup are tied with New Zealand pair Jonah Lomu and Julian Savea for most ever in a single tournament.
Habana would not mind if Mapimpi scored four more in South Africa’s remaining matches to break his record.
“I know there is a certain Rugby World Cup try-scoring record that stands and as much as it would probably be sad to lose it, it would be incredibly special to see a South African or two break that record,” he said, with his trademark smile.
South Africa face Wales on Sunday, with reigning champions New Zealand playing England in the other semi-final on Saturday.
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)