Before the start of the Super 14, everyone was concerned about the form of Bryan Habana. Three weeks in, nothing has happened to allay those concerns. The Springbok wing suffered the ultimate indignity this weekend when he was substituted 54 minutes into the Bulls' match against the Lions. Eighteen months ago he was the world player of the year, toasted everywhere from Paris to Perth. Offers to play overseas poured in, as did endorsement deals and sponsorships.
Habana was hot. But the Habana of 2009 is not the Habana of 2007. He misses tackles, gets skinned on the outside and is not the attacking force of old. He still cracks the odd magazine cover (for getting married rather than his marvellous try-scoring), although a recent article in a monthly sports magazine cut to the heart of his ills: "No pace no place" it was headlined. Happily, JP Pietersen, the other wing in the Springbok team, has rediscovered his form for the Sharks. In 2007 he was the top try scorer in Super 14; a year later he went tryless, leading to predictions that his star had burned itself out. But he is back and two tries in the Sharks' upset 22-15 defeat of the Chiefs in New Zealand on Saturday gave sustenance to coach John Plumtree's claim that Pietersen would soon return to his form of old.
Why this all matters is because every frontline South African is playing within the context of the impending British and Irish Lions tour, now less than 90 days away. It has added needle to every match. With such importance added to the series, no one's place is safe - even a player of Schalk Burger's standing needs to look behind him. Indeed, Burger's game is a long way off its best, although it is an open secret in Cape Town that he does not even talk to teammate Luke Watson after Watson's controversial recent comments [when he said he wanted to vomit on his Springbok jersey]. Certainly, this appeared to be borne out this past weekend when the Stormers lost at home to the Blues, a side that had copped a 59-point belting just seven days previously.
The Stormers have the look of journeymen boxers: keen for a scrap but ill-equipped to deal with real quality. The team, the media and their fans talk themselves up a great deal, but there is more style than substance to them. Indeed, not until they acquire a hard-nosed front five will they ever contest for the title. Greater imagination on attack would not harm their cause either. The Bulls, in turn, look suitably nasty and resilient. Even without their injured captain Victor Matfield they have the look and feel of contenders.
Bakkies Botha, the ferocious lock forward, has led by example while Pierre Spies, the thoroughbred No 8, looks increasingly like the best emerging rugby player on the planet. The Lions will not know what hit them when they come up against the rampaging Blue Bull in June. But Sharks remain South Africa's best hope. It has taken them years to develop, but at last they have depth in every position which allows them the luxury of having players like John Smit and Beast Mtawarira on the bench. One look at the Sharks bench guarantees the opposition get queasy.
What has become abundantly clear is that teams that can last the pace will generally win. Under the new experimental laws the ball is in play far longer, which explains why the supremely fit Sharks and Bulls have won three on the trot and why the Lions and Cheetahs already look out of the race. There is tons more kicking, and consequently tons more running, putting a premium on fitness and faster players.