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

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Sport: Rugby World Cup 2015 -

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

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