LONDON • If a player wearing No. 11 scores a try in the first Rugby World Cup semi-final on Saturday, the deed will set a new record. If they both manage to, their feats will set two.
South Africa's Bryan Habana goes into the match with 15 World Cup tries, level with Jonah Lomu as the competition's most prolific try-scorer. And New Zealand's Julian Savea goes into it with eight tries from this World Cup alone, a single-tournament record he shares with both of the above.
Try-scoring is a ruthless business, but if you expected there to be any needle between the world's leading exponents of the craft, you would be disappointed. Following his hat-trick against France last weekend, Savea was embarrassed by comparisons with Lomu, and Habana, who was effusive in his praise of the 25-year-old.
"I have an unbelievable amount of respect for Julian," Habana, 32, said. "When he first got into that All Black jumper, there were a lot of doubts about his ability. To see the way he has come on (by) leaps and bounds over the last three years, especially in this tournament, is immense."
Realistically, Saturday's No. 11s have two matches to claim their respective records. Habana will be 36 come the next World Cup, so this one will surely be his last. If Savea, though, claims his record outright, he will have every chance of pushing for the other in Japan in four years' time, when he will be 29.
Savea's treble on Saturday took him to 38 international tries, fifth on the All Blacks' list, one place and try ahead of Lomu. For a man who was dropped for being overweight only three months ago, it is quite the turnaround, his devastating performance in the quarter-final mirroring the improvement of his team after some listless showings.
The Springboks too have had their troubles of late.
Habana knows that any improvements in their recent matches will need to be developed further if they are to prevail against the All Blacks.
"We have been playing knockout rugby for the last six weeks, but we are going to need to improve in every area if we want to come out on top against an All Blacks side that showed last weekend how good they can be," he said. "Playing against them automatically lifts that intensity tenfold."
South Africa have won just two of the last 12 meetings between the two sides. And South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer believes they have to get past the best side in history if they want to reach the final.
The All Blacks have lost just three out of 52 Tests, with two draws, since winning the 2011 World Cup.
"This is probably the best team that's ever played the game," said Meyer as he named an unchanged XV yesterday for the Twickenham clash. "If you look at their run after the World Cup, they've just got better after the previous World Cup, and that doesn't happen in world rugby.
"In saying that, you have to believe you can beat them."
Hooker Bismarck du Plessis had been in doubt after having his hand "studded" accidentally by team-mate Francois Louw during the quarter-final win over Wales but is available.
Veteran lock Victor Matfield, who missed the last three matches with a hamstring injury, returns on the bench in place of Pieter-Steph du Toit.
THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE