He enjoyed a storied career in which he would glide effortlessly past opponents and over the tryline in the famous green and gold jersey of the Springboks.
But if it had been up to Bryan Habana, his glory would have been delivered with the ball at his feet rather than in his hands, and in the equally famous red of a Manchester United shirt.
Bryan Gary Habana was born in the rugby-mad country of South Africa – but the boy who would become the most prolific international try-scorer in the sport’s history was infatuated with football, and powerhouses United in particular.
His parents, Bernie and Faith, named him after two iconic Red Devils stars of the 1980s – captain Bryan Robson and South African goalkeeper Gary Bailey.
And faith certainly played a dramatic part in Habana’s shift in focus from the round to oval ball. He was inspired by the transcendental hosting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup by South Africa.
He was at the final with his dad and recalls vividly the moment Nelson Mandela – freed in 1990 after 27 years in prison and serving as South Africa’s first black president from 1994-99 in the post-Apartheid era – shuffled onto the Ellis Park pitch.
Decked in the No6 Springbok jersey, Mandela handed the Webb Ellis Trophy over to Francois Pienaar after Kitch Christie’s hosts had beaten the All Blacks 15-12 to clinch their maiden World Cup.
Habana was so moved by the events that in the aftermath, understandably, he “immediately forgot” about football.
He’d never even played a game of rugby before the World Cup and admittedly could not pass with either hand – but less than a decade later he was introducing himself to the world when he scored a try on his Springbok debut against England at Twickenham, in November 2004.
Asked tongue in cheek if his United-supporting family were disappointed their son’s astonishingly successful career came in rugby rather than football, Habana said: “Not only my parents, I wanted to become a professional footballer. I grew up only playing soccer. I didn’t really know about rugby, I wasn’t really a fan, even in a rugby-mad country like South Africa.
“I was born in the Apartheid era so players of colour were not encouraged to play, it wasn’t easily accessible to play or watch.”
But the unforgettable images of Mandela, Pienaar and white and black players competing together, to reach one common goal, went some way to erasing the hate and racism that had previously dominated South African history.
There were plenty of fears about how the staging of the tournament would play out in a country where Apartheid was only abolished in 1990-91. But organisers need not have worried. There was a surge of support for the Springboks among both the white and black communities, who truly united behind the slogan ‘one team, one country’.
The World Cup was the first major sporting event to take place in South Africa following the end of Apartheid. It was also the first World Cup in which the Springboks were allowed to compete. From 1985 to 1991, South Africa did not play a single Test against an established country and the International Rugby Football Board (now World Rugby) had barred them from participating in the first two World Cups in 1987 and 1991.
The IRB only readmitted them to international rugby in 1992, following negotiations to end Apartheid.
So the World Cup went ahead, with the eyes of the world on the newly-coined Rainbow Nation. And to this day it remains one of the most colourful and memorable sporting tournaments ever staged.
Habana celebrated his 12th birthday during the tournament – five days before the Springboks beat France 19-15 in the semi-finals to set up a showdown with mighty New Zealand in the final.
By then, a captivated Habana had already been turned. He and his father were two of the lucky 59,870 people inside Ellis Park. History was played out in front of their eyes as an attritional affair was won by the boot of Joel Stransky, South Africa soaring to a tense 15-12 victory after extra time, and a triumph that meant so much more than simply silverware.
“For me the big turning points came in ’95 at the World Cup, seeing the progress throughout South Africa,” added Habana, talking to Sport360 as an HSBC ambassador ahead of the Dubai Rugby Sevens last week.
“My dad took me out of school for the first time and we drove down to Cape Town to watch the opening game, Australia v South Africa, the world champions against the host nation.”
After Australia were beaten 27-18, minnows Romania and Canada were dispatched as the hosts topped Pool A. In the quarter-finals, Chester Williams – the first non-white player to be included in the Springboks squad since Errol Tobias and his uncle Avril Williams in the early 1980s – carried his team into the last four with four tries as Western Samoa were trounced 42-14.
Habana recalls: “As a family we went to the quarter-final when Chester Williams scored the four tries.
“A week later we all jumped back in the car to go down to Durban to watch the semi-final against France. I was pretty fortunate to then be at the final with my dad and be one of the people at Ellis Park.”
As skipper Pienaar put it afterwards: “No-one could have written a better script.”
And unbeknown to him at the time, Habana was about to pen his own tale.
“To be able to experience that moment, to be able to inspired, to be instilled with a feeling of one day hoping to emulate the players, I immediately forgot about soccer and wanting to be a soccer player,” added the 35-year-old – who went on to win 124 caps for the Springboks and ended his career with 67 tries – second only to the 69 scored by Japan’s Daisuke Ohata.
“Now what this team had done, for me, hoping to be part of the next generation and doing the same, it’s the beauty of what rugby has given South Africa.
“The iconic moment of Nelson Mandela walking out there with that No6 Springbok jersey on his back was something for a lot of black South Africans, you were unbelievable proud to be a part of.”
The seed was planted. And the subsequent harvest has been stunning. The Golden Lions, Blue Bulls, Western Province, Stormers and Toulon have all been represented with aplomb. Habana scored three tries for South Africa’s Under-21s in 2004 before a brief stint with the Blitzbokke – his nation’s sevens side – on the 2003/04 World Rugby Sevens Series.
Then came the try off the bench in the 32-16 defeat to the Red Rose as a fresh-faced 21-year-old, and he never looked back. Emulating Williams, he lifted the World Cup trophy with the Boks in 2007, 12 years after that gripping day at Ellis Park – he scored eight times to earn the tournament’s top try-scorer award.
Eight years later in 2015 he equalled Jonah Lomu’s record of 15 World Cup tries with a hat-trick against the USA. Not bad for a boy who hadn’t played a game of rugby before 1995.
“My first ever game of rugby was post watching the ’95 World Cup, going to King Edward VII School and the U14 G side as a scrum-half,” said the Johannesburg native.
“It wasn’t the first I’d heard about it but I literally couldn’t pass with both hands and I’d never played rugby before then.
“It wasn’t quite how I imagined starting out but I was able to now participate in a sport I’d been inspired to take up because of 95, so it was pretty special. And being able to give back to the game was pretty cool as well.”
Sir Clive Woodward has condemned England’s decision making in a 16-15 defeat by New Zealand that he insists should infuriate Eddie Jones.
Jones was pleased with a performance he viewed as evidence of a team making strong headway towards next year’s World Cup, declaring “we’re disappointed, but we’re excited about where we’re going”.
England stormed 15-0 ahead at a rain-swept Twickenham and led until Beauden Barrett landed the match-winning penalty in the 60th minute, but Woodward is unable to look beyond the inability to seal a famous win against the All Blacks.
“There were lots of plus points, but they lost the game,” Woodward told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Sportsweek programme.
“That was a game England should have won and I’d be pretty cranky this morning if I was in Eddie’s shoes.
“As the days go on they’ll become a little more angry with themselves that they didn’t win that game.
“I just don’t believe coaching and playing for England is about building for the future.
“It’s about the here and now and at the end of the day they lost to a very good All Blacks team. They lost by one point and you don’t get many chances to beat the All Blacks.”
Woodward’s greatest frustration is directed at the decision to go for the jugular with successive penalties in the 48th and 49th minutes by opting for attacking lineouts rather than kicking for goal.
Both times they fell short with the rolling maul that yielded a first-half try for Dylan Hartley and when Kyle Sinckler knocked on, the opportunity to extend their 15-13 lead was gone.
When New Zealand were in a similar position in the 60th minute, they kicked for the posts with Barrett landing what proved to be the match-winning penalty.
Jones backed his players, stating “they feel the game, we don’t. We see the game”, but Woodward insists they should have pre-ordained orders to take the points.
“Players do have to take the decisions on the pitch, but you can also do a lot of preparation off the pitch,” Woodward said.
“The conditions were awful. At 15-13 up and with the clock going down, we had a chance of adding the points to go 18-13 up. We went for the lineout. That was a big mistake.
“If you are five points up, you drop a goal and you’re eight points up and you win the game. Build the score.
“Everyone is harping on about the try or no try by Sam Underhill, but for me not to take those points was a big error.
“We’ve got the best goalkicker in the world in Owen Farrell. He’s a 100 per cent goalkicker. And Elliot Daly can kick long ones.
“These leadership decisions on the field of play are absolutely key, especially as the clock counts down. They are what win or lose you a World Cup and we need to get a little bit better.
“Our calls against New Zealand were wrong. I think every player, if they were sat down in the classroom in the cold light of day, would say kick the goal.”
It is tradition when Wales take to the field at the cavernous Millennium Stadium for cannons pitchside to bellow out bursts of flames to fire up the team and the already vociferous crowd.
And on Saturday, the home side finally consigned to ashes one of international rugby’s most infamous losing streaks.
After unlucky 13, victory was finally achieved for Wales at the 14th attempt against Australia.
The Dragons didn’t exactly take a flamethrower to the record, which has seen them go a decade without a win over the Wallabies.
It wasn’t pretty, the 9-6 scoreline evidence that this was not a game for the rugby purists. It wasn’t the worst spectacle, with plenty of artistry on show. Overall though it was attritional; a good old-fashioned arm wrestle, in which both side’s defences put in immense shifts.
To put it into context, Australia had the joint-best tackle success rate (91 per cent) of the 12 teams playing on Saturday, France and Georgia the others. Wales were only slightly behind at 90 per cent.
Seven players in red registered double-digit figures for tackles and only six players across the six Test matches played on Saturday made as many or more tackles than Wales workhorse Justin Tipuric (20).
It was not the way Wales fans would have dreamed of breaking the decade-long hoodoo as they descended on the capital, but the monkey is now off the Dragons’ back – and they must now use the win to roar into next year’s World Cup.
Caution must also be preached. This is an Aussie side that finished third in this year’s Rugby Championship. Stars still exist in Michael Hooper, David Pocock and Israel Folau but it is hardly brimming with the talent of previous squads. Tougher tests lie ahead.
But although victory in Cardiff was ugly, their battles with Australia has seen enough pretty play and style over the previous 10 years. This time there was more gritty substance from Wales.
It has been a heartbreaking aspect every Welsh fan has had to embrace, never being quite good enough to get over the line against the green and gold, despite coming ever so close since that hallowed 21-18 win on the same pitch, at the same time of year, in November 2008.
Seven of Wales’ 13 losses over the intervening period have been delivered by less than a converted try; defeats of 21-18, 24-18, 25-23, 20-19, 14-12, 30-26 and 33-28 leaving Wales increasingly demoralised.
The only blowouts have come via the 33-12 2009 mauling and 2016’s 32-8 drubbing, defeat as much a sign of autumn in Wales as the wretched wet weather. Australia’s combined margin of victory in what ostensibly has become a seasonal stroll since 2008 is 102 points, or by 7.84 points per game.
With 10 years of hurt finally torched, the two sides will meet again in the same pool in Japan next year. This must be the springboard for a new-look Wales to jump in and join the elite party in Japan.
Wales’ 2015 World Cup can be summed up by their marauding group stage win over England which consigned their bitter rivals to the fate of being the first-ever hosts to fail to make the knockouts. They were then routinely bounced out by South Africa in the quarter-finals.
Wales must look at the bigger picture next year. They finished fourth in 2011 – and a nation still wonders what could have been had skipper Sam Warburton not harshly been handed a red card against France. They played 61 minutes of their semi-final with 14 men, yet lost just 9-8.
Their best performance on the game’s grandest stage came in the first edition 31 years ago – the Wallabies overcome 22-21 by Tony Gray’s side in the 1987 third-place play-off.
A similar showing, and not just taking big scalps, should now be the focus heading to the Far East. A fresh outlook, with Warren Gatland’s squad having a very fresh look to it this autumn.
Stalwarts and established stars remain – like Leigh Halfpenny, Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Davies, Ken Owens, George North, Dan Biggar and Tipuric – but the rest of this squad is littered with promise and players considered pups in international rugby.
New Zealand-born Blues pivot Gareth Anscombe is emerging as a real star and has started the first two Autumn Tests at 10.
Ross Moriarty, Steff Evans, Josh Adams, Tomos Williams, Adam Beard and Dillon Lewis are part of an exciting, emerging new wave. Sixteen of the 37-strong autumn squad – whose average age is 26.5 – have 10 caps or fewer, with 25 of them 26 or younger.
What must also be taken into consideration is the Wallabies’ triumph made it seven victories in a row for Wales – their longest winning run for 13 years.
Tipuric said afterwards “we are building up some serious momentum”. That they are. Apart from the new horizons, and Japan, ahead of them, Wales are also building towards a future without the nation’s longest-serving coach.
Gatland has held the reins for 11 years but will bow out next autumn. Both he and Wales will hope to send him out successfully, which must be at least a last four spot. Is the task ahead really so insurmountable?
Australia are in crisis – defeat to Wales their eighth loss in 10 games. South Africa are in transition. England are one of the best three sides in the world, but have been wobbling. Even the awesome All Blacks have shown they are not impregnable.
Up next for Wales is this weekend’s tussle with minnows Tonga. Victory in the final autumn Test would secure back-to-back victories over the Springboks, sending them soaring into next year’s Six Nations.
Perform well there and the Dragons will head to the Land of the Rising Sun with hope also high of just a third-ever World Cup semi-final berth, and perhaps even better.