Ha­bana, a Spring­bok set to leap into the class of great­ness

CityPress - - Sport - Dan Retief dan.retief@city­press.co.za Fol­low me on Twit­ter @retief­dan

Imag­ine a coach pick­ing a young­ster to play for the Spring­boks and map­ping his future in this way: “My boy, I want you to play 100 test matches over 10 years and want you to score a try at least in ev­ery sec­ond game.”

Sounds im­pos­si­ble, doesn’t it? But that is ex­actly what Bryan Ha­bana, who will run on for his 100th test when the Spring­boks take on the Wal­la­bies in Perth on Satur­day, has achieved.

Ha­bana has in fact done bet­ter than that hy­po­thet­i­cal tar­get; he has scored a record 56 tries in the 99 tests he has played since mak­ing his de­but as a 21-year-old in 2004.

And well I re­mem­ber the mo­ment. The Boks were be­ing pum­melled by Martin John­son’s for­mi­da­ble Eng­land side when in the 70th minute of the test at Twick­en­ham in Novem­ber 2004, the young man with an in­ter­est­ing name ran on to the field to make his de­but.

And what a de­but it turned out to be, as with his very first touch of the ball, he dis­played his blis­ter­ing pace to round the Eng­land de­fence and score a try.

That try, South Africa’s first in four years against Eng­land in a match lost 16-32 at the out­set of Jake White’s drive to World Cup glory in France in 2007, marked Ha­bana, named af­ter Bryan Rob­son of Manch­ester United, as a bright new star on rugby’s fir­ma­ment.

In no time, Ha­bana would make the num­ber 11 jer­sey his own. “He’s so good, we de­cided to give him the num­ber 1 twice,” quipped White – and it soon be­came ap­par­ent that his ge­netic gifts were com­ple­mented by an ex­cep­tional in­stinct to sniff out tries.

The King Ed­ward VII School old boy scored two tries in four of his next five test matches and by July 2005, he was al­ready into dou­ble fig­ures.

It seemed a long way off, but those with an eye for statis­tics be­gan track­ing his progress and were not dis­ap­pointed when he equalled Joost van der Westhuizen’s try-scor­ing record of 38 while play­ing against Italy in June 2010.

Ha­bana matched the great scrum half’s mark in his 60th test. It had taken Van der Westhuizen 86 tests to get to 38. Pos­sessed of ex­cep­tional hand-eye co­or­di­na­tion and top-draw pace, Ha­bana forged a rep­u­ta­tion for scor­ing blind­ing in­ter­cep­tion tries and be­came ar­guably the finest ex­po­nent of the chip-and-chase the game has seen.

In time, he would be­come a more rounded player, look­ing to make a con­tri­bu­tion away from his left-wing chan­nel, con­tribut­ing telling de­fence and blind-sid­ing op­po­nents when he was not ex­pected to be in the at­tack. He was quoted in SA Rugby An­nual as say­ing: “I don’t want to be the kind of player who plays one week on and then one week off. I want to be the first name they pen­cil in on the team sheet.”

Ha­bana’s achieve­ments have been im­mense. In the 2007 World Cup, he equalled Jonah Lomu’s sin­gle tour­na­ment record of eight tries and went on to be named the in­ter­na­tional player of the year. He has been named SA player of the year in 2005, 2007 and 2011.

Some of his Spring­bok tries are on the “great­est ever” playlist, and the try he scored af­ter the hooter to win the 2007 Su­per Rugby com­pe­ti­tion for the Bulls will always shim­mer in mem­ory when tales of great deeds are told.

Always smil­ing, un­fail­ingly pos­i­tive and im­mensely proud to be wear­ing the Spring­bok jer­sey, he is now one of the lead­ers in the team, pro­vid­ing a telling re­minder that sheer class is a sure way to elim­i­nate the racial is­sues that are always at the fore in South African sport.

Ha­bana, who has one test more than cap­tain Jean de Vil­liers, will join Percy Mont­gomery, John Smit and Vic­tor Mat­field as a Spring­bok cen­tu­rion, and there is lit­tle doubt his stel­lar ca­reer has af­firmed him as one of the game’s all-time greats, which will surely be con­firmed by in­duc­tion into the In­ter­na­tional Rugby Board’s Hall of Fame once he re­tires.

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