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