From foot­ball fa­natic to Spring­boks’ su­per­star

BRYAN HABANA

Sport360 - - Wilder V Fury - b @Mat­tJones360 ✉ By Matthew Jones mat­[email protected]

He en­joyed a sto­ried ca­reer in which he would glide ef­fort­lessly past op­po­nents and over the try­line in the fa­mous green and gold jer­sey of the Spring­boks. But if it had been up to Bryan Habana, his glory would have been de­liv­ered with the ball at his feet rather than in his hands, and in the equally fa­mous red of a Manch­ester United shirt.

Bryan Gary Habana was born in the rugby-mad coun­try of South Africa – but the boy who would be­come the most pro­lific in­ter­na­tional try-scorer in the sport’s his­tory was in­fat­u­ated with foot­ball, and pow­er­houses United in par­tic­u­lar.

His par­ents, Bernie and Faith, named him af­ter two iconic Red Devils stars of the 1980s – cap­tain Bryan Rob­son and South African goal­keeper Gary Bai­ley.

And faith cer­tainly played a dra­matic part in Habana’s shift in fo­cus from the round to oval ball. He was in­spired by the tran­scen­den­tal host­ing of the 1995 Rugby World Cup by South Africa.

He was at the fi­nal with his dad and re­calls vividly the mo­ment Nel­son Man­dela – freed in 1990 af­ter 27 years in prison and serv­ing as South Africa’s first black pres­i­dent from 1994-99 in the post-Apartheid era – shuf­fled onto the El­lis Park pitch.

Decked in the No6 Spring­bok jer­sey, Man­dela handed the Webb El­lis Tro­phy over to Fran­cois Pien­aar af­ter Kitch Christie’s hosts had beaten the All Blacks 15-12 to clinch their maiden World Cup.

Habana was so moved by the events that in the af­ter­math, un­der­stand­ably, he “im­me­di­ately for­got” about foot­ball.

He’d never even played a game of rugby be­fore the World Cup and ad­mit­tedly could not pass with ei­ther hand – but less than a decade later he was in­tro­duc­ing him­self to the world when he scored a try on his Spring­bok de­but against Eng­land at Twick­en­ham, in Novem­ber 2004.

Asked tongue in cheek if his United-sup­port­ing fam­ily were dis­ap­pointed their son’s as­ton­ish­ingly suc­cess­ful ca­reer came in rugby rather than foot­ball, Habana said: “Not only my par­ents, I wanted to be­come a pro­fes­sional foot­baller. I grew up only play­ing soc­cer. I didn’t re­ally know about rugby, I wasn’t re­ally a fan, even in a rug­by­mad coun­try like South Africa.

“I was born in the Apartheid era so play­ers of colour were not en­cour­aged to play, it wasn’t eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble to play or watch.”

But the un­for­get­table im­ages of Man­dela, Pien­aar and white and black play­ers com­pet­ing to­gether, to reach one com­mon goal, went some way to eras­ing the hate and racism that had pre­vi­ously dom­i­nated South African his­tory.

There were plenty of fears about how the stag­ing of the tour­na­ment would play out in a coun­try where Apartheid was only abol­ished in 1990-91. But or­gan­is­ers need not have wor­ried. There was a surge of sup­port for the Spring­boks among both the white and black com­mu­ni­ties, who truly united be­hind the slo­gan ‘one team, one coun­try’.

The World Cup was the first ma­jor sport­ing event to take place in South Africa fol­low­ing the end of Apartheid. It was also the first World Cup in which the Spring­boks were al­lowed to com­pete. From 1985 to 1991, South Africa did not play a sin­gle Test against an es­tab­lished coun­try and the In­ter­na­tional Rugby Foot­ball Board (now World Rugby) had barred them from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the first two World Cups in 1987 and 1991.

The IRB only read­mit­ted them to in­ter­na­tional rugby in 1992, fol­low­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions to end Apartheid.

So the World Cup went ahead, with the eyes of the world on the newly-coined Rain­bow Na­tion. And to this day it re­mains one of the most colour­ful and mem­o­rable sport­ing tour­na­ments ever staged.

Habana cel­e­brated his 12th birth­day dur­ing the tour­na­ment – five days be­fore the Spring­boks beat France 19-15 in the semi-fi­nals to set up a show­down with mighty New Zealand in the fi­nal.

By then, a cap­ti­vated Habana had al­ready been turned. He and his father were two of the lucky 59,870 peo­ple in­side El­lis Park. His­tory was played out in front of their eyes as an at­tri­tional af­fair was won by the boot of Joel Stran­sky, South Africa soar­ing to a tense 15-12 vic­tory af­ter ex­tra time, and a tri­umph that meant so much more than sim­ply sil­ver­ware.

“For me the big turn­ing points came in ‘95 at the World Cup, see­ing the progress through­out South Africa,” added Habana, talk­ing to Sport360° as an HSBC am­bas­sador ahead of the Dubai Rugby Sev­ens last week.

“My dad took me out of school for the first time and we drove down to Cape Town to watch the open­ing game, Aus­tralia v South Africa, the world cham­pi­ons against the host na­tion.”

Af­ter Aus­tralia were beaten 27-18, min­nows Ro­ma­nia and Canada were dis­patched as the hosts topped Pool A. In the quar­ter-fi­nals, Ch­ester Wil­liams – the first non-white player to be in­cluded in the Spring­boks squad since Er­rol To­bias and his un­cle Avril Wil­liams in the early 1980s – car­ried his team into the last four with four tries as Western Samoa were trounced 42-14.

Habana re­calls: “As a fam­ily we went to the quar­ter-fi­nal when Ch­ester Wil­liams scored the four tries.

“A week later we all jumped back in the car to go down to Dur­ban to watch the semi-fi­nal against France. I was pretty for­tu­nate to then be at the fi­nal with my dad and be one of the peo­ple at El­lis Park.” As skip­per Pien­aar put it af­ter­wards: “No-one could have writ­ten a bet­ter script.”

And un­be­known to him at the time, Habana was about to pen his own tale.

“To be able to ex­pe­ri­ence that mo­ment, to be able to in­spired, to be in­stilled with a feel­ing of one day hop­ing to em­u­late the play­ers, I im­me­di­ately for­got about soc­cer and want­ing to be a soc­cer player,” added the 35-year-old – who went on to win 124 caps for the Spring­boks and ended his ca­reer with 67 tries – sec­ond only to the 69 scored by Ja­pan’s Daisuke Ohata.

“Now what this team had done, for me, hop­ing to be part of the next gen­er­a­tion and do­ing the same, it’s the beauty of what rugby has given South Africa.

“The iconic mo­ment of Nel­son Man­dela walk­ing out there with that No6 Spring­bok jer­sey on his back was some­thing for a lot of black South Africans, you were un­be­liev­ably proud to be a part of.”

The seed was planted. And the sub­se­quent har­vest has been stun­ning. The Golden Lions, Blue Bulls, Western Prov­ince, Storm­ers and Toulon have all been rep­re­sented with aplomb. Habana scored three tries for South Africa’s Un­der-21s in 2004 be­fore a brief stint with the Bl­itzbokke – his na­tion’s sev­ens side – on the 2003/04 World Rugby Sev­ens Se­ries.

Then came the try off the bench in the 32-16 de­feat to the Red Rose as a fresh-faced 21-year-old, and he never looked back. Em­u­lat­ing Wil­liams, he lifted the World Cup tro­phy with the Boks in 2007, 12 years af­ter that grip­ping day at El­lis Park – he scored eight times to earn the tour­na­ment’s top try-scorer award.

Eight years later in 2015 he equalled Jonah Lomu’s record of 15 World Cup tries with a hat-trick against the USA. Not bad for a boy who hadn’t played a game of rugby be­fore 1995.

“My first ever game of rugby was post watch­ing the ‘95 World Cup, go­ing to King Ed­ward VII School and the U14 G side as a scrum-half,” said the Jo­han­nes­burg na­tive.

“It wasn’t the first I’d heard about it but I lit­er­ally couldn’t pass with both hands and I’d never played rugby be­fore then.

“It wasn’t quite how I imag­ined start­ing out but I was able to now par­tic­i­pate in a sport I’d been in­spired to take up be­cause of ‘95, so it was pretty spe­cial. And be­ing able to give back to the game was pretty cool as well.”

Hab some of that: Habana’s eight tries led the Boks to 2007 World Cup glory.

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