‘Seeing how rugby can bring hope was my greatest privilege’
In the latest of a series talking to World Cupwinning players and coaches, Bryan Habana tells Jim White how attending 1995 final inspired him to glory
HOW I WON THE RUGBY WORLD CUP NO. 6 BRYAN HABANA 2007
Bryan Habana is back in the very seat at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, from which, as a 12-yearold, he watched the 1995 Rugby World Cup final.
“Well, roughly, it was this seat,” he smiles as he takes in his surrounds. “I think it was this row. OK, let’s just say it was somewhere round here.”
The fact is that hereabout – or close by – Habana had an epiphany. As he watched Joel Stransky kick the winning dropped goal to land the World Cup, the young lad from Johannesburg saw a completely new future for himself. It was at that point he decided he, too, was going to win the World Cup with South Africa.
“It is absolutely no exaggeration to say it changed my life,” he says of that day. “Until that moment, I had been mad for football. That’s what my dad wanted me to play. He was a major Man United fan. I was named Bryan Gary after Bryan Robson and Gary Bailey. In my mind, I was going to be the next South African export to the Premier League. Then I came here and I was hooked immediately. It was the perfect storm: the age I was at, the fact it was in South Africa, the whole President-mandela-in-thespringbok-shirt thing. I said to myself at that moment: I want to do the same as those guys.”
And the astonishing thing is, 12 years later, he did precisely that. Stationed out on the wing, he was part of the Springbok side who lifted the Webb Ellis trophy in France in 2007.
“It sounds ridiculous now, but if you’d said to me when I was that 12-year-old that one day I would be part of a World Cupwinning side, I don’t think I’d have been that surprised. That moment seemed to make everything possible.” Habana is speaking to The
Daily Telegraph just before he heads off to the Drakensberg mountains to lead a three-day, 100kilometre Challenge Africa trek to raise funds for the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation, of which he is an ambassador. It will be a tough few days of hacking for Habana, a man built for speed not distance, who admits the furthest he ever travelled in training or on a rugby pitch was a couple of hundred metres. But as he leads the party up vertiginous slopes and down terrifying screes, dodging jackals on the plain and watching vultures circling up above
– with him in mind, he fears
– it gives him the chance to reflect on the journey he made to become a World
“I can safely say, if it wasn’t for ’95, I wouldn’t be the person I am now, never mind the rugby player,” he says. “I’ll never forget the moment my dad told me he had tickets for the final. I went to both the South Africa and New Zealand team hotels getting autographs. I still have the signed shirt. When we arrived at the stadium this guy had the South Africa flag painted on his face and hugged my dad – there was so much hugging going on – and he smeared the paint all over my dad’s jacket. I think what I was a witness to was a people embracing hope. Mandela understood how sport could unite and what I saw was a team that was more than rugby players, they were hope givers.”
After turning to rugby in high school, he quickly rose from the school G team to seizing the attention of the international age group selectors. In 2004, aged 21 and already a professional with the Johannesburg Golden Lions, he made his debut for South Africa, coming on against England at Twickenham and scoring a try with his first touch. From there, he became an ever present. He could not wait for the chance to play in a World Cup. Though after a woeful 2006, when they lost most of their Tri Nations matches, few saw South Africa as likely winners when they touched down in Europe. Yet the team, he recalls, exuded positivity.
“The message we got on the plane to France from [the coach] Jake White was, we land there believing we can win. We said in everything we do we have to arrive like champions, in the manner we dress, in the manner we speak to media. And on the pitch, we thought we’d give it everything and the kitchen sink.”
From the first game, it appeared to be an approach likely to pay dividends. The side made an immediate mark, beating England 36-0. “Nilling them was pretty important,” he says. “They were world champions. And the way we defended put our belief on an upwards curve.” The momentum was hardly compromised by the most favourable of draws. After qualifying top of the group, they managed to avoid New Zealand, Australia, France and Wales, instead beating Fiji in the quarterfinal and Argentina in the semi before meeting England again in the final. “It is the small moments you come to remember,” he says. “There was JP Pietersen’s trysaving tackle against Fiji, Victor Matfield’s tackle on Matt Tait in the final. Everything went our way that year.” It was not like that in the two other World Cups in which Habana participated.
“Fast forward to 2011, we were an extremely accomplished side, world champions, we’d won the Tri Nations, we’d beaten the British Lions, we thought we were destined. In the quarter-final against Australia we played our best rugby, but the small moments didn’t go our way – a missed tackle here, a refereeing decision there – and we lost by four points. And in 2015, losing to Japan, I’m not sure any of us knew how to come back from that. Again, we lost by the narrowest of margins [two points] to New Zealand in the semi. It comes down to using the opportunities that are given to you. On that stage, you don’t get many. You need to use each one to maximum. And in 2007 we did.”
The 15-6 victory over England in the final in Paris was the proudest moment of Habana’s playing career. Though oddly, he recalls there was little feeling of triumph.
“When the final whistle went, it was more a sense of relief,” he admits. “A kind of realisation that we hadn’t messed up.” And it was only after the victory, he says, that the full impact became clear.
“It was so different from 1995, we didn’t have the home support. But when we got back home we realised the effect we’d had: 40,000 people greeted us at the airport. Then we did a tour of the country. That blew our minds. And watching kids running a couple of miles barefoot behind the bus to get a glimpse of their heroes, seeing the effect we had on the smallest rural community, going to Newlands and 50,000 people turning up to chant our names: you realise you are blessed.” It taught him something else, too.
“You also realise you have a responsibility. No other country has the story we have, no other country has so much going for it, but yet needs to overcome so much. Sportsmen get to lead incredibly privileged lives and seeing the part rugby played in bringing hope where there was none, that was the greatest privilege.” And he wonders whether this year history might repeat itself.
“If we win this time, imagine if maybe there’ll be one of the players who was a youngster watching in 2007 and who, just like me in ’95, was inspired to do the same. Wow, that would be the best thing.”
Laureus is a global organisation that uses the inspirational power of sport as a force for good.
‘Watching the final aged 12 seemed to make everything possible – I thought I wanted to do that’
Heroic victory: Bryan Habana with the Rugby World Cup in 2007 and (above, left) at Ellis Park, where he saw the 1995 final
In full flow: winger Bryan Habana