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Thursday, December 22, 2005

 

Rugby Personalities: The Big Interview: Bryan Habana


By: David Walsh
Source: UK Sunday Times
The rising star of Springbok rugby tells David Walsh how he deals with the unique pressures of the Rainbow Nation.

Eight days ago Bernie Habana walked with his 18-year-old daughter Alycia to the Millennium stadium in Cardiff. He liked going places with Alycia because in her company you never got lost. Go to a rugby game with Alycia and you end up at the right gate. "The brains of the family," he always says.

Bernie Habana's reasons for being in Cardiff last weekend were straightforward. His country, South Africa, was playing Wales, and since he was a boy, rugby union has been one of his passions. Alycia, too, likes the game. In the rivers of Welshness that flowed up St Mary Street and towards the ground, Bernie picked out South African flags here and there.

He loves his country's flag. For him it is a symbol of South Africa's diversity and at the same time an expression of its unity. Others interpret the colours as they wish; he sees the blue as depicting South Africa's clear skies, red stands for the fertile soil, green for the vast lushness of the countryside, yellow for the sunshine and white, ah, the white he knows symbolises peace. "It's like a beautiful woman," he once said, "you fall in love with it."

He and Alycia had shown their tickets at a security check 50 yards or so before the turnstiles when he noticed the other flag: the orange, white and blue that was the country's official emblem of South Africa before the end of apartheid. As a man of colour, he considers the old flag an image of oppression and finds it offensive.

It was draped across the shoulders of a young white South African as he and his two friends made their way to the game and Bernie Habana wasn't prepared to let it go. Approaching the young man, he pointed to the flag. "Do you understand how people like me see that flag as personifying what was wrong with our country?" The young supporter was unsympathetic.

So Bernie tried to explain that South Africa was now a different country with a new flag, and if the old hurt was to be taken away, then the symbols of injustice had to go first.

"You have the Springbok on the jersey you wear and a symbol of oppression across your shoulders," he said. He gets emotional but not unreasonable when talking about South Africa.

"My son is playing for South Africa today," he said to his young compatriot. "I don't want you to support him and he would not want you to support him."

"Who is your son?" "Bryan Habana."

"You're just bringing politics into sport."

"I'm not. I am speaking to you as a human being."

The young man's two friends apologised. The one wearing the old flag remained defiant, but then he seemed to hesitate. Bernie and Alycia walked on. Glancing back, Bernie saw the man pull the flag from around his neck, fold it up and stuff it into his coat. He went back to speak to him. "I appreciate the respect you have shown in putting away that flag," he said.

They all then made their way inside the stadium and to their seats. South Africa won 33-16 and Bryan Habana, the new star of his country's rugby team, scored two tries, his 14th and 15th in just 14 internationals. He failed to add to that tally against France yesterday.

IT WAS a day he would remember, Thursday, May 25, 1995. Bryan Habana was 11 and a pupil at Meredale Primary School. Before that day, his parents had never taken him out of school.

Not for any reason. Faith, his mother, was an educationalist; Bernie was a successful businessman. They both believed in education. But Bernie also loved rugby, and on that Thursday he took his boy to the opening match of the 1995 World Cup, South Africa versus Australia in Cape Town.

Coming just 13 months after the country's first free elections, this was an important moment: South Africa's chance to show its new face before a world audience. So that morning father and son boarded a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town.

It was the beginning of a long journey for the boy.

A HOTEL near the town of Chantilly, north of Paris, is the latest staging post. He is here with the Springboks, a valued member of the team he first saw 10 years ago. His mother and father, Alycia and his girlfriend, Janine, have endured a bitingly cold Parisian morning and four trains to visit.

He kisses his parents, his sister and his girlfriend, although not in that order. They ask how he is. He smiles and says things are just fine. They talk about Paris and the rugby, and when Bernie gets a quiet moment, he reminds his son that there is just one match, one weekend, to go and then a long, long season will be at an end. His son nods knowingly; one weekend, body and soul can hold up for one last weekend.

And it shall end pleasantly enough. This evening he will attend an International Rugby Board banquet in Paris to celebrate the International Player of the Year. Dan Carter, New Zealand's outstanding fly-half, will deservedly receive that award, but Habana was one of the five shortlisted players, and 12 months after first playing Test rugby, has been named International Newcomer of the Year. It is an achievement comparable to that of the more experienced New Zealander.

We sit in a quiet landing on the first floor of the team hotel and he begins to tell his story with the rapid-fire delivery of a sprinter. He was born Bryan Gary Habana on June 12, 1983, in a suburb of Johannesburg, although his was no dusty suburb. Like his brother, Brad, and Alycia, he attended private school.

"The biggest thing about my childhood," he says, "was the love shown to us by our parents. If you have that always coming towards you, you automatically try to give it out to other people.

"One of the core values in our family was that colour was not an issue. It's a value I hold dear to my heart and will do until I start turning in my grave. Growing up in a country with so much history and so much diversity between the cultures, I was never conscious of the differences. I didn't worry about the colour of a man's skin or the significance of his surname, and for this, I am thankful to my parents."

From the day he first ran, he was an athlete. From the age of six until he was 13, he never lost a 100m or 200m race and at primary school he played football and cricket, too. But when he talked to his parents about sport, they told him it was nothing compared to the importance of education. He was a good student.

He was seven or eight when he tired of people always spelling his name incorrectly; "Brian," they wrote, not understanding he was "Bryan". "Why couldn't you have made my life simpler," he asked his dad, "and called me Brian?" "You don't understand," Bernie replied, "You are Bryan Gary Habana because I named you after two footballers, Bryan Robson and Gary Bailey, who both played for Manchester United. I called you Bryan because of Bryan Robson's drive, his ability to inspire his teammates, his love for the game and his determination to come back from bad injury. Gary is your second name because he was South African and he played with a smile on his face."

There were other things Bernie could have told his son; how he had travelled to England in the late 1980s because he wanted to stand in the Stretford End before they tore it down and filled it with seats. How he then went to Twickenham and when this lady from the Rugby Football Union brought
him on a personal tour, he could smell the history in the old timber and the green paint.

Plenty of things he could have told the boy. How he had played for the old South African Rugby Union, the governing body that catered for non-whites who played the game.

He loved rugby but he hated the oppression of apartheid, any kind of apartheid. His own union banned him for life because in his love for the game, he attended one of the games between the Springboks and one of the unofficial touring teams of the late 1980s. "I accept my punishment," he
told his accusers, "but you must also ban the man who reported me, because he too must have been there."

What to tell a boy whose mind is free of prejudice, whose eyes see what is good, whose hopes are unbounded. So, to tell him about rugby, Bernie took his 11-year-old out of school on that Thursday and boarded a plane for Cape Town.

"It was my first experience of rugby," says Bryan. "I'd heard about the game, knew my dad had played it, but I'd never been bothered. There wasn't a rugby culture in my primary school; athletics, cricket and football were my sports. Then I went to Cape Town and saw that opening match. It was a turning point for me . . .

"My dad and I flew to Durban to watch the semi-final against France, we were at Ellis Park for the quarter-final against Samoa, and when you are alone with your dad at the World Cup final and your country is playing the All Blacks, that was just unbelievable. It brought me a lot closer to my dad and
a lot closer to rugby."

So much about that tournament remains vivid in his memory. Before the quarter-final, his father took him to watch the national team train at the Wanderers' club in Johannesburg. When it was over, he waited outside the changing room to see if he could catch a glimpse of the players.

Francois Pienaar was signing autographs when he asked Bryan if he would mind keeping an eye on his kit bag.

For the kid, this was a privilege beyond description. He carried Pienaar's bag to the car, and there, the captain of the Springboks opened the bag and gave him a blue training jersey with No 6 on the back. He brought it home. Although it was big and loose over his tiny shoulders, he slept in it every
night.

Because he was bright and innocent, he soaked up all the goodness from that World Cup campaign. "I sat there wondering how 40 rugby players could unite a country of 44m people, a country that was so culturally diverse. How amazing it was that our president, imprisoned for 27 years, could come on to the field and be the face of what South Africa now stood for.

"It showed me what the country could be, what potential there is. It meant a lot to me that Chester Williams was part of the team and that he was there totally on merit. He was also showing the new face of South Africa, centre of the stage for the black community. I thought, 'If I could be part of
this, it would be unbelievable'. Chester's presence seemed to say, 'There's many other people who can do this'. And I wanted to be one of them."

He remembers, too, the overwhelming emotion and the sheer chaos of the final. "We had tickets, Dad and I. But the stadium was so packed that we couldn't get to our seats. My dad ended up sitting on one seat, with me on his lap. I will never forget the passion, and at the end guys were drinking beer, hugging each other, crying. I had never seen anything like it in my life.

"We can win the World Cup again, but it will never be the same; you're not going to get that feeling again. To have experienced it with my dad, well, it's definitely something that stuck in my mind."

IT WAS a year or so before Bryan played his first game of rugby, for the Under-14 G's at his new school, King Edward VII in Johannesburg. They were the seventh-best under-14 team in the school, a collection so modest that the achievement was to get them on the pitch at all. In his first experience of the oval-ball game Habana scored two tries and started as he meant to continue.

He has been a prolific scorer of tries through the 10 years of his involvement in the game, first as a scrum-half, then as a centre and now as wing.

Sometimes he seems blessed with the good fortune to be so often in the right place at the right moment, but it happens so routinely, it is not luck at all. He has a razor-sharp instinct for knowing where he needs to be, and once he gets the chance, that's it. Nobody catches Habana.

Injured at the beginning of last year's Under-21 World Cup in Scotland, he made his first start in a pool match against New Zealand. His knee was heavily strapped, he was not 100% fit, yet still he scored three tries in a match that the Kiwis won decisively.

You remember, too, his first cap for the Springboks, coming late in the game against England at Twickenham 12 months ago.

By then a dominant England were home and dry. The crowd stayed in their seats only because their team was threatening to score again. Then Habana came on, and against the tide of English dominance, he ran in a try.

Seated in the stand, Bernie jumped up and acclaimed the score, arousing the curiosity of the Englishman in the next seat.

"Why, when your team has been thrashed," he asked, "does it matter that you get a consolation try?" "Because it's my son that scored it," said Habana.

"Well, that's the most wonderful thing," said the England supporter, "the most wonderful thing."

For the Habanas, it was. Their boy started his first match against Scotland a week later and scored his second and third international tries. His Test career has just reached the end of its first year and already he has scored tries against England, New Zealand, Australia and France. His tries-to-matches ratio is extraordinary.

As a talented, educated and intelligent non-white Springbok, his importance to the team transcends conventional boundaries.

When South Africa played Australia earlier this year for the Mandela Trophy, a game organised by the former president to raise awareness for the fight against Aids, Nelson Mandela greeted the players wearing Habana's international cap, the one from Twickenham. He also spoke on the telephone to Mandela, who wanted to talk "to that youngster who scores all the tries".

Habana is aware of the particular responsibility he bears.

"Oh, definitely. But it is good. When I go back home and a white person tells me how they love to see me score tries for the team, or a person of colour tells me I am the reason they started watching rugby, that's a good feeling. This was what I wanted 10 years ago, to represent what South Africa
can achieve, to be proud of South Africa, to be part of a country that has so many cultural differences and can still say, 'It's not about colour, it is about the person '.

"It is a huge task, something I realise more and more each day. I appreciate how difficult it is, this path being laid before me, and I just hope I can continue to take it for a very long time."

So when the game is over, he waits and he signs every last autograph. Nobody is turned down.

Bernie looks at his 22-year-old son and worries that he is taking on too much. "You must learn to say no on some occasions," he tells him.

But Habana has a good memory. "Remember when I was young, dad," he said to his father, "and we would wait for the Springboks and you would tell me to look at the faces of the kids who didn't get an autograph?" He will get on with it; many miles to travel before he sleeps. Professional rugby meant his BSc university degree was not completed, and that is something he still wants to finish. In the past 12 months the team has moved from sixth in the world to second and although he appreciates the last section of the climb will be the toughest, he fervently believes it will happen.

What does it mean for the kid at the end of his first year of international rugby judged one of the five best players in the world? "To be listed alongside Dan Carter, Victor Matfield, Tana Umaga and Richie McCaw is for me as good as winning. I rate Tana Umaga as one of the most respected players to have played the game; Dan is one of the most exciting and yet one of the surest; Richie McCaw is one of the all-time great No 7s; and Victor has been doing it for a few years now, South Africa's outstanding player.

"I will only be successful if I can achieve the consistency that Victor shows in his game.

"To get the respect of your peers, you've got to do it again and again. Being nominated this year will be no good unless I get nominated again and again."

Bernie brought his son to Cape Town 10 years ago so that the boy could sense for himself the greatness of rugby and perhaps see a vision for a new, vibrant nation. He hoped it might spark something, and all along the way, he said it would only work if the young player was driven by a love for the game.

"Bryan is a professional, but he doesn't play for money. He doesn't need to. My business (the home improvements company Three By Four) has been successful and Bryan has a lot of shares. I tell him that I am working hard to make him wealthy. All the money that he has received in endorsements has
been placed in a trust fund and if he stopped playing now, then he wouldn't have to work again."

There are, though, things that he has to do, rugby and stuff just as important. Victories to satisfy his competitive streak, tries to quench his thirst for excitement, hearts to win over, mindsets to alter: rugby can be your game, South Africa is our country.

Did he choose this path or was it chosen for him? What does it matter? The important thing is that he keeps travelling.

The flying Springbok who went from obscurity to pin-up boy in the blink of an eye

BRYAN HABANA, the clean-cut, turbo-charged Springbok, is rapidly establishing himself as South Africa's Jonny Wilkinson minus the injuries, with his image on magazine covers and sponsors queuing at his door.

After helping South Africa win the Under-21 World Cup, he marked his full Test debut with a try against England within five minutes of coming off the bench at Twickenham in 2004. He raced over for two more against Scotland the next week, demonstrating his ability as a lethal long- range strike runner with an eye for the interception. The 22-year-old's electric pace has seen him scorch to 15 tries in 15 Tests, already making him his country's ninth- highest all-time try-scorer, yet Habana does not see himself as a wing.

He started his career as a scrum-half at King Edward Vll School in Johannesburg, where his talent was spotted by Jake White, the Springbok coach. Although Habana now plays on the wing, he says he would much rather play centre.

The winner of South Africa's player of the year award has just been named the world's best newcomer to Test rugby by the International Rugby Board - barely a year ago, many of his countrymen questioned Habana's right to be in the team.

Nicknamed Brock, Habana plays Super 12 Rugby for the Blue Bulls in Pretoria, scoring nine tries in 12 games since joining last season.

He comes from a close family, and his father, Bernie, is Habana's biggest supporter. The multi-millionaire owner of a successful home improvements business has travelled the world to support his son in every international match he has played so far
Comments:
Eish, the title didn't lie! It is a big interview, almost as big as a Dragon!  
Anyway great interview and backgroun on the player. He will become a BlueBull Great, allthough he wasn't raised in Blue Bull Country. I still imagine what a centre combination of him and Ettienne Botha would've done to opposition.  
Also, great talent, great potential but not the finished article yet, in my opinion.

It worries me a little that Bryan is both financially very secure already and experiencing very early success and international acclaim.

Let's hope he keeps his feet on the ground and keeps working on areas of his game.
 
This is an absolutely fantastic interview. Damn it is really gooseflesh stuff ...

Everything about it.

How come we can't have writers at SA RUgby who have the prosaic capabilities of this journalist.

Aldo

Me to boet...they would have been devastating.

Rasputin

With a father like that, I think Bryan knows exactly how lucky he is.

Can't we get Bernie Habana into SA RUgby somehow? He sounds like a man with far more ethics and integrity than Brian Van Rooyen...
 
eah Davids, Bernie must have great integrity, I mean, he was Bryan manager when he signed for the Bulls. Obviously he saw how much more integrity the Bulls have than the Lions!!!!  
How's that picture though....

Brilliant.

Drew Mitchell. Eddie's so-called 'speedster' having Bryan Habana run away from him...


I remember this test match for one thing.

When the Boks won the turnover, Blades screaming at his mike

"Get the ball to Habana! Get the ball to Habana!"
 
Yeah Davids, jeez Habana's fast. To think he's only something like 4th fastest over 40 meters in this country. I think Chavanga, Roland and Nokwe are all faster than him.  
Anyone else surprised that Kandas hasn't put up a 'Spears' sub-heading under 'Site Navigation'...;-)

St Pete, did you see our two Russian articles?
 
Sois Zaheer Raylands Aldo.

Bloody hell we're a bunch of liquirice all sorts.

A team with white Afrikaners, Jews (okay not since Joel Stransky), Englishmen, Christians, Africans, Muslims....it's actually quite cool.

Chavanga was an Africa Games 100m athlete for Zimbabwe and his 100, 200 and 400 metre records still stand in Zimbabwe.

Did you know his boet was one of those Galdiator body builder muscle steroid rager types...

Maybe we should ask him to come and play openside flank for the Boks...or maybe he'll solve our tight head issues, so log as he gets off the roids.

No...imagine one of the AB's getting 'geniepsig' with him and he flies into a roid rage....
 
When I said Roland, I meant Raylands! Shit am I slow today! My uncle gyms with that warrior oke from Gladiators. Bigger than any human being outside of the Bulls Squad I've ever seen!!!  
Aldo
Where did you get the stats? Not that it's wrong or something, I would just love to see the top 10 with their times. I looked for it on numerous websites but couldn't find it...
 
I cant remeber to be honest Reinardt. I also just looked them up. I can try to get it for you, I know someone in the inner circles who might just have them.  
Aldo
Who? Keo?
If you can it would be great. PissAnt or someone could post an article on it...
 
I remember that there were stats on the WP site on their players at one stage.

Our agent for Andre Hough, Eugene somehow managed to get stats on the top 5 last year and published them on keo.
 
Brain habana will fail the pencil test. LMAO

BWAAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHA

That one was for you davidS...lol
 
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.  
Oh shit, that was supposed to be on the Black tide thread! I'm moving it, so ignore the deleted post!  
Reinhardt, please tell me your keo comment was a joke. Please, he's an arsehole that wishes he knew everything.  
wpw

You're too young to know what the pencil test was.

Where the hell did you hear of the pencil test?
 
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