Habana’s still try-hungry

Bryan Habana continues to play an influential role for the Springboks, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Bryan Habana’s momentary look of disappointment said it all. He’d just squandered a golden opportunity to score a fourth try against the USA in the Springboks’ final World Cup pool game in London, and he could barely believe it.

The Boks’ most lethal finisher had wrapped up his hat-trick to draw level with Jonah Lomu’s World Cup record of 15 tries, but the opportunity to surpass that mark in one fell swoop quite literally slipped through his fingers.

Habana looked set to pounce on a neat grubber kick into the in-goal area, but the ball bounced slightly higher than expected, and instead of clinically dotting down as he’s done so often during his career, the veteran wing inexplicably knocked on.

His instinctive, immediate reaction at the time told you a story about ‘Habana the rugby player’. Despite having taken his total Test try tally to 64, he was hungry and desperate for more. Ever the perfectionist, he knew he’d fluffed an almost certain try.

Yet after getting back to his feet and dusting himself off, Habana allowed himself a wry smile. After the match, he traded jerseys with his USA counterpart and spent an extended period after the match taking photos with fans and signing autographs. That reaction provided insight into ‘Habana the person’. If ever there’s an individual who epitomises what it means to be about the ‘we’, and not about the ‘me’, Habana is surely that man. 

Humble, down to earth and constantly self-effacing, Habana is a team man to the core.

So the comments that followed his try-scoring feats would come as no surprise to those who have interacted with the affable Bok stalwart.

‘Fluffing an opportunity to score a try at any time is never ideal, but equalling Jonah Lomu’s record is truly humbling. I said in 2007 that I don’t think I can ever be compared to Jonah – the way he changed the game, he was a class act. He scored 15 tries in two tournaments, it’s taken me three. 

‘Personal achievements are always great but all that matters to me is the team winning and moving forward,’ he added.

‘I have been fortunate to have worn that Springbok jersey 114 times [it would be extended to 117 by the end of the World Cup], and to have been able to make a contribution for the team has been a lot more worthwhile to me than the tries I’ve scored.’

Ultimately, Habana was unable to add to his overall try tally during the business end of the World Cup, with three near-misses in the first half of the Boks’ third-place play-off proving to be the closest he’d come. Yet, in typical fashion, when Habana was substituted in the 67th minute, he did so with a little smile that flitted across his face as he left the field for the last time in a World Cup tournament.

And while he might have lost the blistering pace that saw him take the 2007 World Cup by storm, scoring eight tries as a bright-eyed 24-year-old, his contributions to the Springbok cause have hardly diminished. In fact, when you split Habana’s career roughly down the middle, it’s clear he never lost that anticipation and try- scoring proclivity.

In his first 57 Tests from 2004 to the end of 2009, he racked up 36 tries, while from 2010 to 2015, he scored 28 times. Factor in arguably the most difficult period of his career, when he endured a relatively barren spell between 2010 and 2011, and one realises what an incredible contributor Habana has been.

His strength of character was also illustrated by the manner in which he rediscovered his best form in 2012, going on to be crowned the SA Rugby Player of the Year for the third time. 

Having solely plied his trade in South Africa up to that point, for the Bulls and Stormers, Habana joined Toulon in 2013. This time, the experienced wing had to overcome significant injury challenges before repaying the investment the French giants had made in him, with Toulon  clinching the 2013-14 European Cup and Top 14 double. They retained the European Cup in 2015, while they bowed out at the semi-final stage of this past season’s Top 14, despite topping the log at the end of the round-robin stage. Needless to say, the Boks inherited a new model of Habana in 2015, and while it may not be one that runs quite as quickly, it’s been no less influential.

‘As a player I think I have become more mature. Before 2007 I hadn’t really experienced any vast lows or disappointment during my career,’ he reflected after the Boks’ final World Cup pool game.

‘I’m now a dad, which wasn’t the case in 2007, and that sort of thing puts life in perspective. It’s been a fantastic journey, one I wouldn’t change in any way because every challenge and success has brought me to where I am today. Hopefully when I do hang up my boots I can look back with a lot of pride.’

That day may not necessarily be any time soon. At 32, Habana certainly appears to still have some gas left in the tank, and he suggested during the World Cup pool stage that he felt his career wasn’t quite at an end yet.

It’s frightening to think what try-scoring figure he could end on if that is the case, having already equalled David Campese’s tier-one tally of 64, while he is closing in on the all-time Test try record of 69 held by Japan’s Daisuke Ohata.

Springbok scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, who has played alongside Habana for much of his career, acknowledged that the wing has always had that uncanny knack of finding his way to the tryline.

‘Since Bryan’s first appearance, he has been an unbelievable finisher. He is always in theright place at the right time.’

Heyneke Meyer, who also coached Habana at the Bulls, suggested the stalwart was the type of player who comes around once in a generation.

‘Bryan would be the first to admit it’s not about the individual, but the team. He’s always played well for me and comes through in the big games. I am so proud of Bryan, as a player and human. When we’ve really needed him he’s delivered his best. He is a great ambassador for South Africa.’

And the good news is that the Bryan Habana story may well have another chapter still to be inscribed into the annals of Springbok rugby.

– This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Craig Lewis