Let's raise Habana high for a great player
Bryan Habana, one of his generation’s most decorated rugby players, has announced his retirement
His ability to stay on the move while evolving made Bryan Habana an enduring force in the sport he is about to quit.
Whether it was moving from scrumhalf to centre to wing, transferring from Johannesburg to Pretoria, the Cape Peninsula to the Cote d’Azur, or taking instructions from Jake White, Peter de Villiers, Heyneke Meyer or Allister Coetzee, or indeed graduating from the rank and file to elder statesman, Habana was receptive to blending with his environment.
“For any player to be successful you constantly look at where you are as a player. You can’t be stagnating and your work rate is a non-negotiable,” he told this writer on the eve of his 100th Test in Perth against Australia in 2014.
When he announced his retirement on Tuesday there was an outpouring of support and gratitude for a career in which so many around the rugby world delighted.His was a restless energy, in which the perpetual pursuit of excellence ultimately became the bedrock of his performance.
Habana’s drive made him one of his generation’s most decorated players. His voracious appetite, perhaps even more than his raw skill, to score set him apart. It was a trait that helped him remain relevant even after he reached the 100-Test mark.“I think there is a level of respect around the world,” he said on the eve of that Test against Australia in Perth in 2014. “Until I hang up my boots I don’t really want to worry about the level of respect for what I’ve achieved. There is still quite a bit I want to achieve.”
Injury eventually slowed him down but ultimately Habana was all about forward motion. Looking over his shoulder was his least considered option.
Even though he was the poster boy for the transformation strides South African rugby had made since unification, Habana wasn’t burdened by the past. His was after all formed and forged on a social stratum well above most South Africans.A seemingly over-zealous father, as well as a brother vicariously living the life of Bryan, failed to erode the winger’s popularity, but the Top Billing lifestyle brought with it an assumption that the player was devoid of street cred.
“I’m not a previously disadvantaged player,” he set the record straight in 2014. “I grew up in the new South Africa, I went to the best schools. I went to RAU (now UJ) and got picked for the Lions and, yes, I had to work hard and sacrifice. I had every opportunity to succeed so if I didn’t it would have been my own doing.
“I don’t know what it is like to have had a life like Ashwin Willemse, Breyton Paulse, Cornal Hendricks or Lwazi Mvovo.“Having a white wife, you get black people telling you on social media that you just go for the rich and famous. Social media has opened up a big can of worms. But then there are people who tell you how great you are.
“As a player of colour it is great to be seen as an inspiration and a role model. Hopefully I can inspire players of all colours.”
He spoke passionately about being inspired by the 1995 Rugby World Cup and how the emotions of others were stirred when he was part of the triumphant Class of ’07.“I remember black kids in the Eastern Cape running three, four kilometres after the team bus just to get a glimpse of their heroes.”
Indubitably Habana will go into the pantheon of rugby greats. He had star quality from the start. Eugene Eloff, his former coach at the Golden Lions, recalled his first sighting of the scrawny teen. “He had unbelievable speed. There was this little guy playing scrumhalf and wearing ski pants under his shorts. He would break at will and run away from the opposition.”
And it is perhaps that innate ability to look ahead and run into the most inviting space for which Bryan Habana will be most remembered.