Bryan Habana’s time at Toulon has made him a better player and a better man, writes RYAN VREDE.
Bryan Habana has lived to tell the tale, a happy one that features two European Cup titles and a Top 14 crown. Yet it was so very nearly a tale of despair and failure.
Habana is holding court in Cape Town, where he has returned after his second season with French giants, Toulon. The season has taken its toll. This much is evident. He is clearly exhausted, the result of a long campaign and insufficient down time thereafter. He has managed just a short post-season holiday and by the time we meet, Habana has already begun preparing physically and mentally for the Rugby Championship. He has also allowed his mind to wander towards the World Cup.
Yet despite his body being battered and his mind being shot, he offers both up willingly, the former for the photoshoot that accompanies these words and the latter for insight that helped craft this story.
Habana has settled into life on the French south coast. He has made strong friendships with many of Toulon’s players and strengthened existing bonds with the club’s Saffa contingent. He has a decent handle on the language, important in a city that has as strong a French identity as Toulon has, while his wife and child have found a groove, which in turn has aided Habana’s bedding in.
It wasn’t always this easy. A year ago Habana was wondering whether he had made a mistake in swapping the Stormers for Toulon. Worse yet, he says, he had a sense that Toulon had regrets about his recruitment and making him one of the best paid players in the game.
To understand Habana’s struggles you must understand the context. Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal first approached him after his incredible feats at the 2007 World Cup. Habana kindly declined on the basis that he felt the Bulls of that period had only begun to peak. The temptation was greater two years later when Boudjellal came knocking once more, this time bumping up his offer significantly. The Stormers won the battle for his services then, but a third approach from the millionaire businessman sealed the deal, taking the best Springbok wing in history to the ambitious French side.
Billboards proclaiming his arrival went up around the city before the ink had dried on the contract. In an unprecedented move, Boudjellal himself met Habana at Marseille Airport. Only, he wasn’t alone. The French rugby media were there, ready to meet one of the highest profile rugby signings in the country’s history. Agents completed the scrum.
‘I thought I was going to come in and fly under the radar,’ he says. ‘Instead I felt like what I imagine a Hollywood movie star feels like. I knew there was going to be an interest in my arrival. I didn’t ever imagine it would be like that.’
Habana was, and still is, acutely aware that as the club’s marquee signing there was an expectation on him to deliver. Boudjellal and head coach Bernard Laporte did well in those early days to not overtly express that expectation, for fear they may compromise their prize stallion’s performance. ‘It was good. I felt at ease,’ Habana recalls.
Habana played a couple of warm-up matches but was soon back with the Springboks for the 2013 Rugby Championship campaign. He scored two tries in the Ellis Park Test but was forced to leave the game with a hamstring injury. The stallion returned to his French stable with a problem.
Habana recovered to make the Boks’ end-of-year tour but no sooner had he returned to Toulon than he was out injured once more. This time he tore his hamstring muscle clean off the bone.
‘It was the worst injury I’ve had and that started the most difficult period I’ve ever endured in my career,’ Habana remembers. ‘Here I am, the club’s top signing and, it felt like, the great hope for domestic and European success and I’m done, I thought at that point, for the season. I’m in a hospital trying to express my concerns to a French doctor who can barely understand me. I’m freaking out because I can’t really understand his explanation of whether the operation was a success or not. I’m far from home with only my wife and some of the Saffa boys for support. I didn’t really feel any great compassion from the club. I know at its heart rugby is a business but I needed to know that they were fully supportive.’
Habana started to sense the sentiment towards him had changed.
‘Look, the French aren’t great at hiding their emotions. I knew Mr Boudjellal and Bernard were at the end of their tolerance level with regard to my situation,’ he says. ‘I’d been there for just under a year and played three matches. What made it worse was watching [wings] Drew Mitchell and David Smith thrive in a team that was playing great rugby. I sat in the stands thinking, “Damn, that should have been me”.
‘Things got worse when the French media started reporting that Toulon were preparing to release me from my contract. I had zero job security at the time because the club wasn’t denying any of the reports. I knew I needed to get back quickly, so I stuck my head down and worked relentlessly to get back to fitness. It felt like I had one more chance to prove my worth at Toulon. The pressure I put on myself was massive.’
The season ended with Habana playing a role in the European Cup and Top 14 double. Despite the impressive outcome Habana felt like an impostor, and that his contribution to that success had been negligible. He committed to repaying the club’s investment in his second season, and he did so to a large extent, playing a central role in their Champions Cup triumph, including a match-winning try in the semi-final against Leinster.
‘If you’d interviewed me this time last season you’d have written a different story,’ he says. ‘But in hindsight, I wouldn’t change that experience for anything. It demanded I go to a place, mentally, that I’ve never been to before. I had to find answers and results.
‘I couldn’t fall apart, although the temptation to give up, to say to Toulon: “Look, this isn’t going to work out and it’s time we call it quits” was incredibly strong. I could have come back to a South African franchise and felt the comforts of home. But I wouldn’t be the player I believe I am today if I’d done that. More importantly, I wouldn’t have been the man I am now.’
The Springboks inherit this refined Habana at a critical time in their history.
HABANA ON …
THE SPRINGBOKS’ CHANCES AT THE WORLD CUP
‘This World Cup will probably be the hardest to win because of the number of potential champions and, from a Springbok perspective, the route to winning it is incredibly difficult. We’re going to have to face Australia, England or Wales in the quarter-finals, New Zealand possibly in a semi-final, then Ireland, England or Australia in a final. But we have massive belief we can do it. We haven’t come close to playing to our potential. We’ve got the coaching staff and players to do it.’
AN INCREASING NUMBER OF BOKS PLAYING ABROAD
‘The global game has taken a big turn in recent years and is going the way professional football is. I’m really not in any camp when it comes to players going to play abroad or playing their entire career in South Africa. They must make the best decision for themselves. In the context of how short our careers are, the financial aspect of it is always a major consideration and the experience of a different rugby culture is another. As far as guys going at a younger and younger age, I see it as a positive for them. You grow as a player and a person.’
RESTRICTIVE ELIGIBILITY RULES FOR TEST REPRESENTATION
‘Unions globally will have some big decisions to make around their national team eligibility rules in the next two or three years. You already see the Australian Rugby Union amending them to accommodate Matt Giteau, who is playing some of his best rugby. How can you say no to including a player like that? There’s a massive global market for players and it could grow if rugby takes off in the USA in the coming years.’
‘This will be my last World Cup but I haven’t decided whether the World Cup will be my last involvement with the Boks. I will assess how I do at the tournament and if I come through that, I’ll see if Heyneke [Meyer] stays on afterwards and make a call from there. If it were to be my last involvement with the Springboks, I want to go out with a bang.’
– This article first appeared in the August 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine