Bryan Habana has the physical tools and game-changing intuition to make a plausible switch to the NFL.
Now he just needs to go back in time to reinvent himself in Seattle: 'Bakkies… weet waar is die fluks-capacitor?'
Habana has been a premier Test winger for almost a decade, defying critics each and every time his credentials have been questioned.
Kid dynamite exploded onto the scene for the Golden Lions during the 2004 Currie Cup and has since carved through the rugby world, winning Super Rugby titles with the Bulls, a World Cup, two Tri-Nations championships, and a series win against the British & Irish Lions for South Africa, and a Top 14 trophy and European Cup while on duty for French club Toulon. Oh, and not to forget that the man who was voted IRB Player of Year after the 2007 World Cup is South Africa’s all-time leading try-scorer.
Seahawks safety Earl Thomas is six years younger than his 31-year-old rugby counterpart, but appears to be sprinting up the same career pathway towards success. The three-time All-Pro safety has four times been voted into the NFL’s Top 100 by his peers, surging up to 17th place after helping Seattle to beat Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 48 last year. And Thomas became the highest paid safety in the NFL in April after agreeing to a four-year contract extension worth $40-million.
From a defensive perspective, the free safety position is a lot like rugby’s fullback role – he is the defender who lines up furthest from the ball. Thomas’s job is primarily to protect the defence’s integrity by reading the offensive formation for cues and adjusting his coverage accordingly.
If the quarterback drops into the pocket and locks onto a pair of receivers flooding the right side of the field, Thomas slides over the top to give his cornerbacks insurance against the deep ball. But if the quarterback hands the ball off to his running back, Thomas is expected to anticipate the point of attack, close the distance to that destination, and rocket into the ball-carrier to deliver a shuddering hit. Forcing a fumble gets bonus points.
Habana has the core attributes required to play the position, and superb instincts are chief among those.
A legacy established over 97 Test matches was built on a nose for the ball. The Bok finisher quickly became renowned for scoring long-range tries, on defence. The unofficial master of the intercept, Habana’s great anticipation saw the KES speed merchant pick off enemy passes like a sniper.
Turnovers are important in rugby; they’re crucial in American football. In time, Habana’s keen game-sense would definitely install him as a ball-hawk of note, encouraging opposing quarterbacks to keep dial back on long-range strikes.
The faster the safety, the wider his range in pass coverage. Jet shoes are required to reach either sideline from centerfield before the ball arcs down out of the Monday Night lights.
Fortunately, both these players are rapid. Habana has clocked an unofficial 10.4sec 100m time, and who could ever forget him racing a cheetah. Good times. Earl Thomas is no slouch, registering a 40-yard time of 4.37sec coming out of college, which roughly translates to a 10.5 in the 100.
The Seahawks safety uses this top-line speed and acceleration to pick off passes, and take them back to the house. No doubt Habana would have a field day in the same situation, returning interceptions for fun. He’d certainly have to work on his celebrations, though, as Bryan’s trademark ‘toss the ball up, clap a few times and catch it’ celebration probably wouldn’t make it onto the Sportscenter countdown. No judgement though, Bryan’s a stand-up guy.
Habana has the edge in the speed department, but he’d have to loosen up those stiff hips to keep up with Thomas. Samba classes are cheap and widely available in Toulon, nestled on the south coast of France.
He’d also have to work on his Jackhammer. That’s not a dance, but a nickname given to hard-hitting safeties who like to roll the dice every time they steam in, hoping to ding helmets with a brave receiver diving across the middle.
‘Smaller’ men, like Habana and Thomas, have to mix it up with bulked-up versions of Israel Folau who have beaten their man and are rumbling downhill towards paydirt. It’s a free safety’s job to put these beasts down.
There is no doubt that Bryan Habana is an elite athlete who would fit in quite comfortably down in Seattle. But plenty of top-tier players have never even been to the Big Show, let alone won there.
Could Bryan carry the load between the hashmarks, and pull off the post-match ensemble with some Super Bowl bling?