Last April, on a remote grass track somewhere in the North-Western province of South Africa, conservationists staged a 100-metre dash with a difference. One of the participants was a cheetah. The other? Bryan Habana, the Springbok wing, whose performances at Test level since the autumn of 2004 had been little short of jaw-dropping. The cheetah won, but only just. Habana has not lost a foot race since.
Galloping along at virtually a try a game – he has crossed the opposition line 26 times in 29 international matches, and will surpass Breyton Paulse's all-time Springbok record if he scores against England tonight – Habana is already the talk of the tournament. His quartet of tries against Samoa at Parc des Princes five days ago were scored in a variety of different ways, but two of them were trademark efforts that left entire platoons of would-be tacklers wondering how and why.
He is not alone in posing a threat to the reigning champions this evening. As Brian Ashton, the England coach, said yesterday: "If we concentrate on one man, we'll be missing the point. For a start, the Springboks have one of the best scrum-halves in the world at their disposal in Fourie du Preez. I'd certainly say he was the most intelligent scrum-half in the world." Then, after a moment's thought, he added: "Habana does give them a different dimension, though. The worst thing we could possibly do in this game is kick the ball to him, because he is supremely dangerous."
Twelve years ago, when the World Cup was played in South Africa, people said the same kind of things about the massive Jonah Lomu of New Zealand. When push came to shove in the final, the Springboks themselves came up with a way of neutralising the threat. James Small and Japie Mulder, two of the most aggressive defensive players in the game, gang-tackled Lomu to distraction. Lomu put tries past just about everyone during his career, but he never put one past the Boks.
Can England do something similar? It is a tall order. Like Lomu, Habana runs in straight lines. Unfortunately for the holders, he appears to run lots of straight lines simultaneously. It was easy to lay hands on Lomu, although bringing him to earth was another issue altogether. As Samoa found last weekend – and England have found to their cost on too many occasions for comfort – the South African is rather more elusive. Josh Lewsey of Wasps, who tackled England to victory over the Boks at Twickenham last autumn, confronts him tonight. He will need all the luck he can get.