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.”
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