Habana finding strength in hurt
Jean De Villiers bounds up the steps of the Hotel Conrad in Dublin, evading the billowing autumn leaves and the sheeting rain.
"How's it?" comes the familiar South African greeting, as he flashes an impossibly white-toothed smile, somehow retaining his film star poise despite an exhaustive trek from South Africa. As his squad colleagues begin billeting themselves into the city centre for the first leg of a month-long, five-game tour, they seem anything but a collective under siege after their annus horribilis.
But as star winger Bryan Habana discusses tomorrow's opening test of Springbok resolve, the player on the brink of an all-time South African try-scoring record -- he requires one more touchdown to set a new target of 39 -- is reminded of the jeers that accompanied a dispiriting Tri Nations campaign which saw them finish with one win and five defeats.
"It's never a nice thing to go through," he says as he recalls the booing Springbok supporters. "I was sort of disappointed by the crowd to get jeered. When you've done so much for your country to see people turn their back on you is rather hurtful, but as they say anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
"There is not one professional athlete in this world that goes through ups and never has any downs, so you've got to learn from those times and when the times are good you have to be humble in victory.
"It was hurtful, it was something I had to deal with, but you take it where it comes from and it's been great to be back scoring tries and playing some good rugby again. The important point is to enjoy it again. Sometimes in this professional era, things get so crowded in your head and you forget why you play this game, which is to enjoy it.
"I've been fortunate enough to be involved in a great team set-up both with Western Province and the Springboks with players and coaches who really appreciate me as a rugby player and a person and it's about time I gave that back."
To do so, he must first emerge from a duel with Tommy Bowe, who announced himself as a world superstar on the thrilling Lions tour last year, so much so that Habana rates him as the most difficult of any opponent he will face this year, including those in the Tri Nations.
"My opposite number Tommy Bowe has been playing some awesome rugby for the last year or two and it's going to be a different kettle of fish from what I faced in the Tri Nations," he said. "There's a lot of respect.
"I actually rate him quite highly. As a youngster coming through the ranks, his workrate and his work ethic and ability to do something from nothing has been exceptional.
"He is unbelievable in the air. Along with Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney they form a formidable back three. I have a lot of respect for him, he's a top player and he's probably up there as one of the top two or three in the world."
Perhaps it was something to do with many of the South African journalists' lethargy following their long-haul journey, but there was little enthusiasm to begin a scrap with embattled coach Peter De Villiers.
The enigma has received the backing of their Union, however reluctantly, and given the squad's injury profile and fatigue, there is an air of resigned acceptance among the visitors.
"We're a proud nation," insists De Villiers, taking a day off from contributing any of his infamous 'Devillisms'. "It hurts whenever we lose any Test. Last year when we came here it wasn't a very good tour and it hurt a lot. We underperformed a bit, but then again we work very hard on our shortcomings and what we didn't do right. If we can improve 2pc on all the areas we worked hard on I think we will be there."
Habana, preaching a mantra of 'no excuses', is fully aware of the stakes heading into what is nominally a Grand Slam tour, but realistically an exercise in re-establishing credence as World Cup holders.
"We as players are all disappointed with what we achieved during the Tri Nations," he says. "We were bitterly disappointed with our standards. Our defensive lapses really cost us.
"We were disappointed with what 2010 brought to the table. But doing well on the end-of-year tour would make it a little bit easier. Like I said, there's a lot to happen in a year before that World Cup takes place.
"Being afforded the opportunity to field a couple of youngsters is going to be critical going into the 2011 Rugby World Cup. We're only focusing on Ireland."