By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON, Sept 5 (Reuters):Winger Bryan Habana smiles when asked about the pressure of expectation on defending champions South Africa ahead of the rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
New Zealand’s All Blacks enter the Sept. 9-Oct. 23 tournament as favourites to win on home soil, having not won the World Cup since the first in 1987, but they are not the only team under huge pressure to perform, Habana reminded reporters.
Tens of thousands of people gathered to farewell the Springboks in Johannesburg, the country’s president Jacob Zuma basically ordered them to bring back the Webb Ellis cup, while they’re coming off a poor Tri-Nations campaign in which they finished last for a second year in a row.
When the Sept. 9-Oct. 23 tournament kicks off, they are drawn to play Wales, Samoa, Fiji and Namibia in Pool D, which many pundits rate the toughest of the four preliminary groupings.
“Bar the physical side, the mental preparation for a World Cup, of getting yourself ready, having a send-off in South Africa where 65,000 people say goodbye, where you visit the President and … he tells you to bring the Cup back … it’s fairly tough,” Habana told reporters in Wellington on Monday.
“That expectation as South Africans, we’re a very proud nation. We’re very proud of our rugby. It’s one of the big sports that has been able to unite the country.
“(It’s a) tough challenge that we get laid on us as South Africa, but the pressure we put on ourselves as Springboks is much more pressure than anyone else puts on us.”
Habana, like his team mates over the weekend, said the Springboks had undergone gruelling final preparations following their last Tri-Nations encounter, an 18-5 victory over the All Blacks in Port Elizabeth.
“We did quite a bit of training and after the Tri-Nations we had to refocus our energy and work on a couple of areas in our game plan that needed to be addressed,” he said.
“The coaching staff and conditioning staff definitely did not hold back in our training the last couple of weeks.”
Habana expected that preparation would hold the Springboks in good stead for their Pool D clashes, starting against Wales in Wellington on Sept. 11.
“After our game against New Zealand a couple of weeks ago all of the focus went on the World Cup and on Wales,” he added.
“(They are) a tough unit that we definitely respect and a great challenge for us. The Welsh are very passionate and one of the most fiery sides in world rugby and they bring a good challenge to the table.
“We can’t look any further than Wales. Everyone knows that the way you want to go forward, you build and have to win seven games if you want to win that little cup called Bill.”