Quintin van Jaarsveld
Watching the Springboks’ transcendent triumph over the All Blacks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final as a young, wide-eyed spectator at a packed Ellis Park was a life-changing experience in every sense for Bryan Habana.
This was one of the key revelations from the Springbok legend’s entertaining and insightful conversation with historian Dr. Dean Allen on Thursday night as part of a weekly video series raising funds for the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund.
Known as Rugby’s Caring Hands, the Players’ Fund provides assistance to rugby players in South Africa who have sustained life-altering head, neck and spine injuries.
Habana, who scored a South African record 67 tries in his decorated 124-Test career, said he’d had no interest in rugby prior to that momentous day when the men in Green and Gold claimed a thrilling 15-12 victory over much-vaunted New Zealand and united a nation.
Up until then, Habana had seemingly been destined to become a professional soccer player. His very identity was rooted in football, as he was named Bryan Gary after former Manchester United stars Bryan Robson and Gary Bailey, he revealed.
“I grew up wanting to be the next South African export to the English Premiership. Rugby was the furthest thing from my mind,” Habana said.
Then, on June 24, 1995, a young Habana discovered his true destiny. The heart and passion of the Springbok players, the intensity and drama of arguably the most significant showdown in rugby history, the overflowing emotion of the crowd and the powerful scenes of iconic South African president Nelson Mandela – wearing a Springbok jersey – presenting the Webb Ellis Cup to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar changed the very course of Habana’s life.
“Having never played the game before, having never understood the dynamics and rules of the game but seeing how that moment not only united a nation, but etched itself in sporting history lit a fire inside a 12-year-old boy to hopefully emulate that one day,” the now 36-year-old said.
“That moment truly was a watershed one. For me, I didn’t see the colour of someone’s skin, [or] Chester Williams being the only player of colour in the Springbok side. I didn’t really relate to a lot of the struggles that many in the country were going through. Even though my mom and dad had to go through the battles of Apartheid, I was fairly fortunate.
“Sitting in that stadium and seeing the great Nelson Mandela walk out with the No.6 Springbok jersey and hearing this crowd, who five years prior would’ve probably been unheard of, chanting ‘Madiba, Madiba, Nelson, Nelson!’ was something I look back now and I’m so, so extremely grateful to have been in that moment that encapsulated what South Africa could be.”
A scrumhalf initially, his rugby journey “didn’t quite start” the way he’d imagined, Habana recalled with a smile. “My first-ever game was for the King Edward Under-14 D side. I was half the size I am now and probably three times lighter…I used to be called ‘Little Runt’ at school.
“But, I’d been inspired a year prior to play this beautiful game and whether it was for the Under-14 D side, it was an opportunity to play the game I love and was passionately inspired to play and then go through the hard work, sacrifice and dedication over a 12-year period to have the privilege of representing my country at the World Cup, the pinnacle of the sport, and then go on and win it.”
Habana said the ecstasy of clinching the Webb Ellis Cup in Paris, courtesy of a tense 15-9 win over England in the final, was unforgettable, but added the magnitude thereof only hit the squad upon their return to South Africa.
“I think it was different for us [than the 1995 Springboks] winning it in France and not really knowing the amount of support we were garnering in South Africa.
“For us, coming back to South Africa and seeing on the other side of the coin, as a player, the unity that had been formed, seeing black kids in the rural townships in the Eastern Cape running a kilometre or two barefoot behind the bus to get a glimpse of the trophy, to get a glimpse of their hero, to get a glimpse of hope was something that no price value could be attached to, something that not any one of us would’ve given up in place of the trophy. For that, it was incredible.”
Despite the 1995 and 2007 conquests being two of the most monumental moments of his life, Habana said Siya Kolisi spearheading his significantly more racially-transformed team to global glory after a spectacular 32-12 destruction of England in the final in Yokohama last year was hands down South Africa’s greatest World Cup triumph.
“I was fortunate enough to be in Japan in 2019 and get to see Siya Kolisi become the first black African to not only captain his country [at a World Cup], but lift the trophy and I got quite emotional a number of times in that week [leading up to the final] speaking about Siya, speaking about his journey, speaking about Makazole Mapimpi and his journey of having to walk 10 kilometres to and from school.
“I think those real stories that resonate with such an incredible amount of South Africans, to me, almost make 2019 a lot bigger than 2007 and 1995 put together because of the stories that 65% of our population really can resonate with and embrace.
“Sport truly has the power to change the world and rugby, in particular, has been at the forefront of unification in our country.”
Habana himself is one of the greatest ground-breakers in South African rugby history. The first-ever Springbok centurion of colour and the country’s most prolific try-scorer of all-time, he’s a Currie Cup (with the Bulls and Western Province), Super 14 (with the Bulls), Top 14, Heineken Cup (both with Toulon), Tri-Nations, World Cup and British and Irish Lions series winner.
In addition, he was acknowledged as the South African Young Player of the Year in 2004, the Super Rugby Player of the Tournament in 2005, is a three-time South African Player of the Year (2005, 2007 and 2012) and was named World Player of the Year in 2007.
Quite a résumé “Little Runt” finished up with when he called time of his career in 2018.
Answering viewers’ questions, Habana also revealed the highlight of his career, the most embarrassing moment, shared his views on the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on rugby, the future of the Currie Cup and the possibility of a global season.
Next week’s guest is another Springbok icon, Habana’s 2007 World Cup-winning captain John Smit. Tickets are just R50. For more information or to donate to the Players’ Fund, CLICK HERE.