LONDON, 31 Oct - South Africa said goodbye to a large swathe of their greatest generation of players in victorious fashion when they defeated Argentina 24-13 in the bronze medal final on Friday.
Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez and Bryan Habana (above) will all be over 35 come Japan 2019, while 38-year-old Victor Matfield, who captained them in the bronze medal match at the Olympic stadium, has already announced his retirement for the second time.
All four were members of a glorious few years for the Springboks in which they bestrode the world. It began when Jake White’s team won the 2007 World Cup and, under his replacement Peter de Villiers, they won the 2009 Tri-Nations then beat the British and Irish Lions 2-1 in a test series in the same year.
Du Preez, Habana and Matfield were also part of the Blue Bulls team that was coached by Meyer and became the first South African province to win the Super Rugby title, in 2007.
What a privilege it has been pic.twitter.com/qCwNBy3oRG— Victor Matfield (@VictorMatfield) October 31, 2015
“I'm really proud of the last 12 years, the highs and the lows, it has been an unbelievable journey,” Habana said. “I'm not too sure it's the end yet. There is a lot to happen with South African rugby with a new coach.
“I have a lot of time to sit back, relax and assess where I am. Where I am as a person, where I am as a player and maybe sit back and write a few more goals for the next few years.”
After an exhausting tournament, Habana couldn't conjure up one last try to move ahead of Jonah Lomu as the all-time World Cup try-scorer.
He and the New Zealand great are tied on 15 tries and he missed three gilt-edged chances in the first half against Argentina. Twice he was out-paced to grubber kicks and in between he was on the end of an unsympathetic pass from Handre Pollard that he failed to catch with the line at his mercy.
“It definitely wasn't for lack of trying,” he said. “Opportunities come and sometimes things don't happen for a reason. I have a lot of respect for Jonah and maybe rightly his record stays around for a little bit longer.
“I definitely won't be at 2019. I will take some time off now and decide where I am as a player. I am still feeling very good. I have got club commitments coming up in two weeks' time and have to get back to Toulon and put in some hard work there.”
Daniel Hourcade’s team were unable to rouse themselves for one last match, though replacement Juan Pablo Orlandi twisted himself in more knots than is probably healthy for a prop forward to score a try well into time added on to have the last word.
It was no less than Los Pumas deserved after they lit up the match and the tournament with some breathtaking rugby.
Their admission to the Rugby Championship in 2012 has allowed the team to grow and develop since New Zealand 2011 and nearly match the bronze medal they won at France 2007.
With a Buenos Aires team entering Super Rugby, the hope is their players will have even more chances to test themselves and then enjoy victories against the very best.
“Of course it’s been great for us to join the Tri-Nations (the Rugby Championship),” Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, a man who was part of both the 2007 and 2015 campaigns, said.
“We just needed to have more games and to stay together for more time. It’s not by chance that seven out of eight World Cups have been won by southern hemisphere teams. I think as rugby players we have to respect they are playing at another level.”