Habana: We can make Springbok fans believe in us again
Legendary South Africa wing has try record and redemption in his sights, writes Oliver Brown
He has run 100 metres in 10.27 seconds, he has raced against a cheetah, he has even won a sprint to outpace an Airbus A380 as it lumbered into take-off mode. So it should be no surprise that Bryan Habana, faced with a four-on-three in the dying embers of South Africa’s thrashing of Samoa, scorched down the touchline at Villa Park to score.
A week later, the satisfaction of that moment has yet to leave him, as the winger discharges every public engagement in Newcastle with a smile as broad as the Tyne Bridge. In deed and demeanour, rugby’s fastest man is acting as if it is 2007 all over again.
To register that Habana has just become South Africa’s top tryscorer at World Cups, with 11, is to ask where precisely he has been for the past eight years. After all, he amassed eight at France 2007 alone, equalling Jonah Lomu’s record for a single tournament as his status as the Springboks’ most electrifying force was secured.
Time has disfigured that immaculate narrative a touch. Habana has struggled since to recapture the level of genius that rendered him, a few weeks after his team’s triumph against England in Paris, the world player of the year, and has done what he once suggested he would never do by forsaking his homeland for Mourad Boudjellal’s extravagant chequebook at Toulon.
On the surface, Habana has garnered every accolade there is to earn: he has won the World Cup, the Heineken Cup, the Tri-Nations, a Super Rugby title, not to mention 112 Springbok caps. And yet, buoyed by selection for a third straight World Cup aged 32, he appears consumed by the notion of clasping the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time. The scars of vitriolic criticism back home, first for an abject Rugby Championship this summer and then the paradigm-shifting defeat by Japan, have cut deep.
“We know we haven’t been as good as we should have over the past month and a half,” Habana said. “But we fully take on the responsibility of doing this country proud.”
Habana, in common with so many of his generation in South Africa, finds himself turning to the class of 1995 for inspiration. He has spoken often of how he drove with his father, Bernie, through the night from Johannesburg to watch the opening pool game against Preparing for battle: Scotland in a huddle at St James’ Park yesterday
Australia in Cape Town, and of his emotion at seeing his dad’s face smudged with paint when a white Afrikaner turned to embrace him to mark the victory. Twenty years on, Habana, who also attended the final, seizes upon such memories as his single greatest impetus.
“When I sat in that stadium in ’95 I felt inspired, like most South Africans, by that team,” he reflected. “Seeing Joel Stransky kick that dropped goal, watching Mr Mandela walk on to the pitch with that No 6 jersey and handing it to Francois Pienaar – it was an experience that united the country, and drove me to want to do the same one day. Everything that I achieved over the past 11 to 12 years – playing in over 100 Tests, scoring and contributing to so many tries, has far exceeded my expectations. I feel blessed to be able to do it in South Africa, where rugby has this amazing ability to break down boundaries and give back hope.”
Should he contrive one more try against Scotland at St James’ Park today, Habana can leap to third on the all-time international tryscorers’ list, with 61, behind only Japan’s Daisuke Ohata (69) and Australia’s David Campese (64).
The portents are auspicious: he weighed in with a brace of tries to sink the Scots at Murrayfield in 2003, in the very first Test he started. There are also signals, to judge by his fellow wing J P Pietersen’s hat-trick in the dismantling of Samoa, that the Springboks backs are rumbling into life. On the two previous occasions of an individual treble at a World Cup – Chester Williams in 1995, and Habana in 2007 – South Africa went on to take the title.
“Both J P and I have been under a lot of pressure to start performing,” Habana said. “Finally, the back line are seeing more of the ball. It was far more pleasing than the display against Japan, where all four tries were scored by forwards.” The agony of that humiliation can never be fully expunged, but he indicated that the riposte in the Samoa game was every bit as emphatic as the 46-6 scoreline suggested. “For many of us, it was one of the toughest days in our careers. We let everybody down, but we can’t change the past. There is still something special within this squad, and we want to instill hope again.”
Hope: it has been the one constant throughout Habana’s fluctuating career. The grin on his face in Newcastle yesterday, as South Africa wound down their first captain’s run under Fourie du Preez – successor to the luckless Jean de Villiers, whose World Cup is over with a broken jaw – showed that he still possessed it in abundance.
‘Rugby has this amazing ability to break down barriers in South Africa’
Proud: Bryan Habana is South Africa’s top World Cup try-scorer with 11