Rugby World Cup
Bryan Habana denied by try record that refused to be broken
Tristan Barclay
October 30, 2015
South Africa see off Pumas

Bryan Habana came to the Olympic stadium hunting the try that would take him above Jonah Lomu as the Rugby World Cup's all-time leading try-scorer, but in a humdrum third-place playoff the great All Black's record just refused to be broken.

The two men still sit top of the pile with 15 career tries apiece in the sport's showpiece tournament, but the Springboks flyer will be left to rue a string of missed half-chances as South Africa marched to a regulation victory over Argentina.

All attention was on Habana in the build-up, but stealing the limelight after just five minutes was JP Pietersen, his partner in crime on the opposite wing. Argentina made a rod for their own backs when Tomas Cubelli was sent to the sin-bin almost as soon as the match kicked off, the scrum-half failing to retreat the required 10 metres as the Springboks took a quick tapped penalty. Capitalising on the extra man advantage, Pietersen soon squeezed over in the right corner. Over on the left, Habana was licking his lips.

His first chance would come moments later when he vied for a touchdown with Pumas fullback Lucas Amorosino. Referee John Lacey wasn't sure whose hand grounded the ball first and upstairs he went for the first TMO referral of the evening. The most cursory of glances at the replays showed Amorosino sneaking in a last-ditch touch on the ball, denying Habana a record-breaker inside 10 minutes.

Fast forward another eight minutes and it was chance No.2 for Habana, as he pounced on a loose ball at the ruck to hare into Argentinian territory. He looked clean through on the tryline, but a Puma hand was soon gripping his shirt, then his shoulders, and the challenge was enough to knock the ball out of his arms to give away a knock on.

Argentina 13-24 South Africa (Australia only)

The atmosphere at the Olympic Stadium was subdued, with the crowd apparently happy to experience a jolly night out under the floodlights rather than produce the blood-and-thunder fanaticism this tournament has seen under the roof of the Millennium Stadium or in the famous stands of Twickenham. Argentina were failing to put any decent phases together, and the Springboks stood stout in defence and decent enough in attack. Far from providing a thrilling warm-up to Saturday's final, this bronze match felt more like a gentle wind down after a tiring campaign. There was a sense that Habana's quest was the only show in town.

However, if the crowd thought they'd seen the best of Habana's chances in the opening quarter, there was more to come. The third chance was perhaps the best of all. The young Springboks fly-half Handre Pollard cut through a gap in the Argentina line and went to within 10 metres. Seeing Habana out on the left, he flung a looping pass out to him, but it was just too high and the wing knocked on once again. And there would be one more sniff of a chance before the half was out, as Habana raced through to collect a loose ball inside the Pumas' half, only to trip stand-in skipper Nicolas Sanchez and give away a penalty.

As the second-half got underway, a sense started to creep in that this night might not be Habana's night. He provided excellent hands to send the enormous lock Eben Etzebeth over in the left corner, assisting a try rather than scoring it. He dropped a regulation pass on the touchline with an 80m run at the tryline in his sights. There was angst in his face as the cameras beamed him onto the stadium's big screen. Players will always talk about the greater good of the team, but the chance to break such a great record was always going to be a mouthwatering prospect. That will explain the mixture of stunned silence and boos that greeted Habana's substitution after the hour mark. Head coach Heyneke Meyer gave his wing the chance to savour a standing ovation, but he would secretly have wanted another 15 minutes to go for it.

In truth, Habana wasn't the only storyline on this balmy night in east London. Rugby waved goodbye to several of its most famous sons when the full-time whistle sounded. Springbok skipper Victor Matfield, at the grand old age of 38, goes into international retirement for a second time, while the likes of his teammate Schalk Burger, and Argentina backrow stalwarts Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Juan Manuel Leguizamon are unlikely to see another World Cup. That's not to mention the veterans Fourie du Preez and Juan Martin Hernandez, who were left out of their respective matchday squads. Both sides have the youthful talent to keep the fires burning, but there were great names of the game leaving the World Cup field for the last time.

Habana is undoubtedly one of the sport's greatest names and it spoke volumes about how much he means to his teammates that they were prepared to attempt everything they could just to set him up for half-chances. He can be proud to stand at the top of the list with Lomu - a true rugby legend - but there was the sense that this bronze match was a perfect opportunity to etch his name into history all on his own. Sometimes, though, that oval ball just won't bounce in the right direction.

Tonight was just one of those nights.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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