Life of Bryan: I nearly made a Wallaby hop
When Bryan Habana runs on to the field at the Paterson Stadium in Perth on Saturday he may think of two things.
Firstly, how sweet it is to win 100 caps for his country and, secondly, how different his life might have been if he had agreed to relocate to Australia in 2004.
After a starring role in that year’s Under-21 World Championship in Scotland, Habana was offered a fast track to Test rugby with the Wallabies. Instead, he will be hoping to humble Ewan McKenzie’s side in an attempt to keep South Africa at the top of the Rugby Championship table.
Habana remembers the approach from Australia: “One of the Australian management team approached me and asked whether I wanted to take the Clyde Rathbone route. I didn’t get involved and told the guy to talk to my dad, then when we got back to South Africa dad and I sat down and had a serious chat about the offer. I think I surprised myself by how close a call it was.
“The thing was that I had a two-week break after the tournament and looking ahead to the Currie Cup all I could see was the number of players there were in front of me at the Lions. They had Jaque Fourie, Jorrie Muller, Gcobani Bobo (all Springboks) and Rudi Coetzee competing for the two centre berths and I couldn’t see a way through all of them.
“You always want to be the best you can and I looked at what Australian rugby did for Clyde Rathbone, making him one of the best wings in the world. South Africa didn’t want to use him at the time and they spent three years making him bigger, stronger and faster and I thought, well, that could be me. Also South African rugby was doing well at the time, but you’re never sure how things are going to go in this country with the politics involved.
“Ultimately I think the decision to stay was less psychological than from the heart. The fact is that every boy who picks up a rugby ball in this country wants to play for the Springboks, aspires to pull the green and gold jersey over his head. I don’t know whether Jake White had heard about the approach I’d had from Australia, but when he called to say that he wanted me to join the squad it was so great to know that somebody had noticed me.”
White was in his first year as Bok coach and recognised the need for a finisher on the wing. In the search for an out-and-out “gas man” he had tried to get Zimbabwean flyer Tonderai Chavhanga’s naturalisation process speeded up.
On the end-of-season tour he took the Eastern Cape express, Jongi Nokwe, but it was Habana who got the opportunity against England at Twickenham and he scored with his first touch of the ball.
He said: “I can’t take credit for the try, because it was Jaco van der Westhuyzen who drew three tacklers and put me in the clear, and I didn’t want to celebrate because at that stage we were still down in the match, but deep down I was doing somersaults!”
South Africa lost the match 32-16, but a star had been born. As such, Habana was hot property and there was some acrimony concerning his end-of-season move from the Lions, the province that had nurtured him from under-16 level, to the Bulls.
Some critics might have allowed themselves a smile when Habana ended the 2005 season as the villain of the Currie Cup final. The Blue Bulls were leading Free State 25-12 at Loftus when referee Jonathan Kaplan sent Habana to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle. In his absence, Free State scored 17 points and won 29-25.
If that was the low point of his career, however, the high point was just two years away, when he scored the winning try for the Bulls in the 2007 Super Rugby final, then bagged eight more as the Boks claimed the World Cup in France. At that point, he had a legitimate claim to being the best player in the world and rugby was his whole life.
But back in June of this year, when the Springboks were preparing for their first Test of the season, against Wales in Durban, I asked Habana whether he had worked out where his 100th cap was going to be. He didn’t bat an eyelid and put the whole business of rugby into a fine perspective when he said: “Right now I’m more worried about when my son is going to be born.”
As it turned out, the Boks won on the Saturday and Timothy Jacob Habana was born less than 24 hours later in Cape Town. The proud dad was there at the bedside with wife Janine and the first thing he did was tweet a picture of the new arrival.
Three months down the line, Habana is about to become the first player of colour to win 100 caps for South Africa. It is therefore fitting to remember something he told me 10 years ago: “I don’t ever want to look back on my career and think I could have done better and worked a little bit harder. I would rather put it in for 80 minutes every Saturday, because you never know how short your career might be, and if you don’t make the most of every Saturday then there’s no point being in the game.”