Johannesburg - When Bryan Gary Habana – a 21-year-old optimistically named after former Manchester United players Bryan Robson and Gary Bailey – made his test debut as a replacement for the Springboks in 2004, he came perilously close to running on with his beanie on, so cold and nervous was he.
At that very moment, few could have guessed that the bundle of nerves, bright-eyed eagerness and potency tripping over itself to get onto the Twickenham turf would retire as the bona fide Springbok legend he did this week. Not until he scored with his first touch of the ball in test rugby, anyway.
And from that day on Habana – possessed with a fleetness of foot matched only by the razor sharpness of his mind – has traded only in significance in a journey which made him a World Cup winner (2007); a World Rugby Player of the Year (the same year); a two-time Super Rugby winner; a two-time European Rugby Champions Cup winner; a French Top 14 champion; and a two-time Currie Cup winner.
Critical to the Lions, Bulls, Stormers, Toulon and Boks’ decorated career was the mountain of tries (184) the centre-cum-winger scored. The highlights were a first-tier rugby nations record of 67 and 56 Super Rugby tries, the latter placing him joint fourth with All Black legend Christian Cullen on the all-time highest scorers’ list.
Having declared his intention to call it quits six weeks shy of his 35th birthday this week, three of his many partners in crime, Akona Ndungane, Jake White and John Smit, this week looked back at a career which started out as a sprint but would span into a 124-test marathon.
Former Bok coach White deserves credit for wasting little time in involving him in the national team, even though he’d barely made a ripple on the domestic scene.
“Having seen him as a schoolboy who was quick and had raw talent, my thinking was he would bring something different,” White said from Japan this week. “We’d taken him as an apprentice during the 2004 Tri Nations and invested in him, which probably helped how quickly he adjusted to playing for us.
“We talk about players who bring a point of difference. Bryan had that because, apart from his raw talent, he loved scoring tries, could almost sniff them out and had a mental ability and skills that backed up his vision. Looking at his record, he has to be the best debutant I ever picked for SA.”
Smit captained Habana to the 2007 World Cup, the 2009 Tri Nations and the British and Irish Lions series the same year. He was impressed with how Habana carried himself: “He was the most ideal youngster when he came into our changing room. He did everything he needed to do and for him to go from that youngster with a great attitude to an icon in the country has been incredible.”
Former Bulls and Springbok winger Ndungane remembers having to look at videos to gain a sense of the hyped-up new arrival at Loftus Versfeld in 2005. While YouTube gave him an inkling of what the fuss was all about, the real thing was even better.
“I remember his one try against the Blues, where he got the ball inside our 22 from kickoff and just kept going to score. I was on the field, but I was no different to the many fans just watching and cheering.
“What people missed was how incredibly hard he worked. He was always last to leave the practice field, working hard on his body and looking after it.”
White and Smit concurred, the former saying: “He didn’t have the whole set of skills when he started, but he ended up being the best player he could be – he couldn’t chip kick when he started, but by the end he could do it with both feet. He never stopped trying to be better, whether it was the Eye Gym with Sherylle [Calder] or working on his speed.”
Smit said Habana was so electric he always found himself jogging back to the halfway mark the moment his winger intercepted the ball.
“He had an intense competitiveness on the field, it was almost as if everything he did was aimed at helping him score,” he said.
All three agreed he was a model Springbok, with Smit saying that, because of how seriously he took the role, he was the epitome of what it meant to pull the Bok jersey over his head.
White said given that he is constantly mentioned in the same breath for equalling his try-scoring tally for a World Cup tournament (eight in 2007) and in World Cups (15), Habana belongs in the company of players like late great All Black Jonah Lomu.
Ndungane said Habana’s leadership qualities were underrated. He pointed out that it was he who was first to second what sounded like a hollow claim by Bulls captain Victor Matfield that they could still win late in the Super Rugby final against the Sharks in 2007, not knowing that he would score the winning try in the 82nd minute.