In the first instalment of a five-part series, SA Rugby magazine’s writers pick their best Springbok XV of the past 25 years.
JON CARDINELLI (chief writer): South Africa has never produced a better finisher than Bryan Habana. The wing broke the national try-scoring record in 2011 when he surpassed Joost van der Westhuizen’s tally of 38. He went on to finish his Test career with 67 touchdowns, two behind the all-time record-holder Daisuke Ohata of Japan. In 2014, he became the first player of colour to represent South Africa in 100 Tests.
Big, powerful and deceptively agile, JP Pietersen will go down in history as one of South Africa’s greatest wings. Like Habana, Pietersen won everything there was to win at international level between 2007 and 2009. He shone for the Boks at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, and was also part of the Bok side that won all but two of its games in 2013.
South Africa have produced several great fullbacks over the past 25 years. It’s tempting to select Andre Joubert for his heroic performances at the back end of the 1995 World Cup. However, it’s impossible to ignore the contributions made by Percy Montgomery over a period of 11 years.
While it took ‘Monty’ several years to settle at the highest level and find his best position, he was a key figure for the Boks during the Jake White era (2004-07). A prolific goal-kicker, Montgomery still holds the record for the most Test points scored by a Springbok (893).
CRAIG LEWIS (editor): I can’t deny a temptation to pick the ‘Rolls Royce’ of fullbacks, Andre Joubert, but you also can’t look past the ultimate ‘Ice Man’, Percy Montgomery. His composure and class in the big moments set him apart, and his clinical goal-kicking at the 2007 World Cup was such a crucial component to the Boks’ success.
OK, here comes my left-field selection on the wing. Of course, JP Pietersen is a natural pick for many (a nod to my colleagues), but I’m opting for another route. Despite only making his Test debut last year, Cheslin Kolbe has proven to be one of the most lethal players in world rugby. He is currently the best attacking ‘strike weapon’ globally, but he also holds his own on defence and in the aerial game. On form, Kolbe would make any World XV, and earns my selection here.
Having got that ‘surprise’ selection out the way, I’m back to the most obvious one. Of course, there is none other than Bryan Habana who can earn selection as the best Bok wing from the past 25 years. If only there was a machine available to clone Habana in his prime as he was simply unstoppable back then.
WADE PRETORIUS (senior contributor): For the reasons given above and below – and with even Lewis picking him – it’s impossible not to select Percy Montgomery. His boot, decision-making from the back, his unwavering defence and contribution to the gainline when linking up in attack made him an all-round threat. His stellar career – he lasted at the top for a decade plus – included his key role during the Springboks’ 2007 World Cup triumph. Joubert was a great player too, but, Monty was world-class.
Again, the group has reached consensus on one of the wings. Bryan Habana was another standout in world rugby and another that churned out match-winning performances for the longest time. Deadly when in possession close to the line, he seemed to savour the competition among the Bok backs when it came to interception tries while he gave away nothing on defence. With 120-plus Tests and the country’s all-time leading scorer; yes, you’ve earned your dues, Bryan.
In the other wing position JP Pietersen gets a few nods with Cheslin Kolbe gaining one. I’m going to throw James Small into my back three, for some shock value. He was the first Springbok bad boy but also had pedigree on the field. Small was ahead of his time (maybe that played into the persona that was sculpted around his on- and off-the- field exploits). Having played before and after the game’s professional status, he accumulated nearly 50 Test caps and won over 60% of those games. A fighter, a scrapper, a try-scorer and the man who stopped Jonah Lomu en route to becoming a World Cup winner. Small in name only.
DYLAN JACK (staff writer): His achievements (listed above) set a new bar for South African wings and really just speak for themselves. Bryan Habana is not only one of the best wings to play for the Springboks but one of the best-ever players. Blessed with out-and-out pace and an incredible ability to sum up opposition defence, Habana terrorised teams for over 10 years, a remarkable longevity for someone in his position.
When JP Pietersen does eventually hang up his boots, he will be recognised as one of South Africa’s most successful wings. Forming an effective partnership with Habana, the 33-year-old was incredibly effective when it came to the kick-chase. His finishing ability was also underrated and while a move to the midfield in the latter stages of his career came with mixed results, he was still part of some brilliant Bok sides.
This is a very tight call between Andre Joubert and Percy Montgomery, but ultimately the latter would get my pick. Montgomery may have taken a while to find his best position at Test level, but once he settled at fullback, he would become a key part of Jake White’s Springbok team.
MARIETTE ADAMS (staff writer): There’s a case to made for Andre Joubert as the best Springbok fullback of all-time. Unfortunately, I didn’t see prime ‘Rolls Royce’ in action. I saw prime Percy Montgomery and in full flight he was a sight to behold. Celebrated for the accuracy of his left boot and his electric pace, Monty was the first player in South African rugby history to play 100 Test matches and a decade after his retirement still holds the record for the most points scored by a Springbok player. A true legend of the game, he was also a Rugby World Cup winner in 2007 among a host of other international and provincial rugby honours and more than 60 playing records set over a 12-year first class rugby career.
Any composite Springbok XV that does not include Bryan Habana should immediately be regarded as criminal He statistics speak for themselves. He became just the fourth Springbok centurion in 2010, scored 67 tries in 124 Tests overall and played at three Worlds Cups, emerging a gold medalist at the 2007 tournament. Habana isn’t just one of the best Springboks of all-time, he is rightly regarded as one of rugby’s greatest pace men.
Like some of my colleagues above have done, I was also tempted to stick JP Pietersen in here. Nobody gets to play 72 Tests matches for their country without being a quality player. But I feel like Cheslin Kolbe edges him for a spot in the greatest Springbok XV lineup. Kolbe has made an immediate impact on Bok rugby since making his debut less than two years ago against the Wallabies in 2018. Pietersen scored 24 tries in 72 Tests over the course of 10 years (2006-2016). Kolbe has already scored eight tries in 14 Tests over the course of 14 months of international rugby. And the frightening thing is, he is only 26.
Photo: Toby Melville/Reuters