London Evening Standard

England’s match against Ireland tomorrow is a final chance for Stuart Lancaster’s men to make a statement before the Rugby World Cup.

Any optimism generated by the first warm-up win, against France, was destroyed in Paris seven days later, when England were battered for 70 minutes, conceded a host of needless penalties and were lucky to come away with just a five-point defeat.

England may have failed to convince then but one notable voice talking up their cause is Bryan Habana.

The winger was IRB Player of the Year when he helped South Africa win the 2007 World Cup and will be on these shores this month for another tilt at the Webb Ellis Cup.

“I definitely think they are working towards something special,” he tells me. “Under the leadership of Stuart Lancaster and Chris Robshaw, they have done some wonderful things over the last three to four years.

“Stuart has definitely been on the right path, building a fantastic group of players with some exciting youngsters pushing for places. They are brimming with confidence. They could also use the home support.”

Bath wing Anthony Watson and centre Sam Burgess, the latter a  controversial choice given he only moved over to rugby union last autumn, have caught Habana’s eye.

“Anthony Watson shows that guys who are selected for England will deserve their places,” he says. “Sam Burgess has come over from rugby league with a massive reputation.

“He has learned a lot in a short time and has adapted quickly. He could be a key factor.”

How England fare is of particular interest to Habana. With the hosts in Pool A — the tournament’s toughest group given it also features Wales and Australia — and South Africa in Pool B, the quarter-finals will see the winners of one meet the runners-up from the other.

“England’s pool is one where you can’t afford to make any mistakes or you might just find that you don’t qualify,” says Habana (right). “All those teams will be going hammer and tong in every game. This will be one of the most tightly contested World Cups ever. Even though New Zealand are No1 and will be favourites, on any given day a lot of sides can beat them.”

What gives extra weight to the South African’s opinions is that they have not been formed by watching his rivals on television. A vital member of the Toulon side for the last two years, Habana knows European rugby well.

“The Toulon experience is a plus factor for me in the World Cup,” he says. “I have gained knowledge of what it’s like to play in the northern hemisphere and adapted more to the way the game gets played tactically here.

“I can share that knowledge and experience with some of our guys.”

The South Africans could do with that. Twice winners of the World Cup, they come to England in the worst form of the major contenders. They finished bottom in the Rugby Championship, the southern hemisphere competition also featuring New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, last month.

Their 37-25 defeat by Argentina in Durban was their first loss against the Pumas, although the Springboks did win the return in Buenos Aires.

“[The preparation for this World Cup] has been tougher than usual,” says Habana. “It has been a very big learning curve for a lot of youngsters. We have to get back to the drawing board and see what went wrong. We know that we are not quite there yet. Before we get over to the UK, a lot of hard work and preparation has to be in place to make sure that, when that first game against Japan happens, we are ready to kick it off with a bang.”

Many in South Africa feel there is something fundamentally wrong with the selections made by coach Heyneke Meyer. His predecessor, Peter de Villiers, the Boks’ first black coach, has accused Meyer of only picking white players and talked of a return to the days of apartheid.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions have even called for Meyer to be sacked after branding him a “racist”, saying they had received complaints from several players.

Meyer denies the charge and Habana, one of only two non-whites to start the defeat by Argentina, tiptoes around the issue. “Every person not involved in a Springbok team has the ability to voice their opinions,” says Habana. “I am not going to comment. We live in a very unique country and that is something we all understand.

“Whether the number of players of colour the coach picks is right or wrong is not for us to decide. As a player, your main aim is to play to the best of your ability when you do get selected for the Springbok team. Hopefully, by doing well in the World Cup, we can do South Africa proud and unite the nation like we did back in 1995 and in 2007.”


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