Bryan Habana still wants to improve his game, score more tries and win more trophies, writes JON CARDINELLI.
There is a sense that Toulon may go on to greater things, that the two consecutive European Cup title victories and the most recent Top 14 success portend the start of a dynasty. At the same time, there was a powerful climax at the Stade de France on 31 May, as the international rugby community said goodbye to two greats of the game.
English flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson was given his due after guiding Toulon to the double, a perfect ending to an extraordinary career. South African hardman Danie Rossouw was another who received universal plaudits after collecting yet another winner’s medal in a major tournament. These men were granted what so many legends of the past have been cruelly denied – a fairytale conclusion to their respective rugby stories.
For others who hold legendary status in that Toulon team of galacticos, the end is not at hand just yet, and the appetite for success is not sated. This much was evident when Bryan Habana, one of South Africa’s most decorated players, fronted the media in early June to talk about his triumph in France.
Like Rossouw, Habana has won a trophy in every league he’s competed in over the course of his professional career. Habana has never accepted that there is a limit to how much one player can achieve. Even after winning the double with Toulon, he told the South African press about how excited he was to be back in the Bok camp, and how he hoped to play a key role in the lead-up to the 2015 World Cup. This despite having absolutely nothing left to prove.
It was also significant that Habana spoke about his time with Toulon as an education.
A hamstring injury may have ruled him out for much of the European season, but he was involved at the business end of the European Cup and Top 14 competitions.
The game in Europe demands more of a player physically, with the backs and forwards expected to contribute in the trenches. Indeed, Habana may have gone to France at the ripe age of 30 and with 95 Tests to his name, but there’s no doubt regular exposure to this brutal environment has developed aspects of his game.
New experiences have the power to reinvigorate, and Habana found inspiration at Toulon. Playing regularly alongside a master tactician in Wilkinson and an attacking genius like Matt Giteau has taught the Bok wing a great deal. It all serves to show that a stint abroad can propel a seasoned player to a higher level of competence.
Habana has never accepted that there is a limit to how much one player can achieve
The key, though, is Habana has continued to push himself. The 2012 season marked his comeback to form, and his efforts for the Boks resulted in him winning the South African Player of the Year award. The 2013 season was another big one, as Habana moved up a gear.
The introduction of exciting players such as Willie le Roux to the Bok mix seemed to galvanise the veteran, who looked to be back to his explosive best.
The try Habana scored against Italy at Kings Park was almost identical to the one he scored against the Sharks in the 2007 Super 14 final. Two weeks later, in a match against Samoa, he bagged a brace to take his overall tally for the Boks to 50. And then in the biggest game of the season, against the All Blacks at Ellis Park, he scored two important tries. It wasn’t enough to win the game and the Rugby Championship for the Boks, but it said something for Habana’s potency that he was able to breach the best defensive unit in Test rugby. Twice.
Habana has been just as driven in 2014. He’s still pushing himself to improve, and has continued to view the introduction of new talent as an opportunity to strengthen the team rather than a threat to his place in the starting side.
Before the Boks’ first match against the World XV, Heyneke Meyer picked Cornal Hendricks to start on the right wing. As the most experienced player in the backline, Habana said it was his responsibility to help Hendricks settle.
It’s a job he was tasked with at the beginning of the 2013 season when Meyer blooded Le Roux. The record will show that Le Roux has become one of the most important players in the context of a more rounded Bok game plan, and Le Roux has credited Habana for playing a defining role in his development as a Test player.
Habana has been contracted to the Boks until the end of next year, and his value at next year’s World Cup will transcend individual brilliance. His athletic gifts may have helped South Africa win the 2007 tournament, but Meyer and company will be demanding more of him in 2015.
Habana will travel to that tournament as part of the Boks’ senior core, and one of several squad members who boast in excess of 100 Test caps. Fitness permitting, he should hit the three-figure mark sometime during this year’s Rugby Championship.
There is also a chance Habana will become Test rugby’s most prolific try-scorer in the next two years. At the start of the 2014 season, he was fifth on the all-time list, some 16 scores short of Japan’s Daisuke Ohata. Wallabies wing David Campese is second with 64, followed by Wales’ Shane Williams (60) and Japan’s Hirotoki Onozawa (55).
The Boks will play 17 Tests in the lead-up to the World Cup, and a maximum of seven at the competition. It may be a stretch to suggest Habana can maintain his recent strike rate of nearly a try a match, but when you consider his past exploits, it’s not out of the question. This is, after all, the man who equalled Jonah Lomu’s record for the most tries (eight) at a global tournament. At the very least he will move up that try-scorers’ list, and possibly finish ahead of other world-class finishers like Campese and Williams.
Habana, of course, will argue that individual records are relatively meaningless, and that if he is going to add to his legacy it must be as the member of a World Cup-winning team.
Meyer, who has long believed in Habana’s match-winning talent, will say the same. It would make for a powerful ending to one of the great rugby stories.
HABANA'S HONOUR ROLL
IRB PLAYER OF THE YEAR AWARD
SA PLAYER OF THE YEAR AWARD
2005, 2007, 2012 (Springboks)
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS SERIES
2007, 2009 (Bulls)
FRENCH TOP 14
2009 (Blue Bulls), 2012 (Western Province)
2003, 2004 (Golden Lions)
– This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine