‘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

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby | World Cup -


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

Cup win­ner.

“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

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