King of the wing

Bryan Habana wants to do his talent justice, writes Clinton van der Berg in SA Rugby magazine.

Only if you happened to be a Martian from outer space or a recent arrival from a desert island would you not know the name Bryan Habana. In that case, you could do worse than surf to YouTube and look at the video clip labelled ‘greatest individual try ever’.
It is gob-smackingly good and shows the imperious winger in all his splendour. He takes the ball from the kick-off against the Blues, tears up the sideline, beats three players, chips over the defender, regathers and scores the most stupendous try. And
no-one lays as much as a hand on him.

It’s the sort of clip you have to watch again and again, not just to enjoy and absorb but to ensure no trickery is involved. As indeed there isn’t. The 24-year-old still rates that 2005 try as the highlight of his career, although for sheer emotion his get-out-of-jail masterpiece against the Sharks in the Vodacom Super 14 final was as good as they come.

Habana possesses what every sportsman, every title aspirant, craves: the X-factor. His try-scoring has moved beyond the realm of mere sensation; he scores so often, and with such alacrity and power, there seems to be a mysticism about it. Make no mistake, Habernero is a superstar and, although you would be loath to saddle a young buck with the label of ‘great’ just yet, he’s come to the party every step of the way. He could be a megastar at the World Cup.

The remarkable aspect of his pre-eminence is that he is one of a kind. He is big, elegant and has a devastating instinct and bulletlike speed. He’s no Jonah Lomu, but he destroys teams in a manner all of his own making. Indeed, his strike ratio at the beginning of the international season was a freakish 17 in 25 Tests. Only Danie Gerber, with 19 in 24 Tests, bears comparison.

How does Habana do it? He can’t tell you. ‘I’m just blessed with talent. I’d be lying to myself and to you to tell you how I do it. You can train for specific moves, but normally, it’s something you can’t practice. I got it from The Man Upstairs,’ he says. Tracking his career, there are four particular individuals who have crafted the Habana package: Eugene Eloff, who fast-tracked him and convinced him to play centre instead of scrumhalf, skills coaches John McFarland and Todd Louden, and Heyneke Meyer, coach of the champion Bulls and unofficial king of Pretoria.

Louden’s take on Habana is absolute. ‘He’s the ultimate player,’ says the Australian who played such a key role in maximising the Bulls’ skills. ‘Apart from his natural skills, he’s very open-minded to learning. He has a good mix of athleticism and a great thirst to learn. You combine all of this and he has that X-factor.

‘The game’s changing because of the increased athleticism, and Bryan’s game evolves and changes too. Other teams may analyse him, but they don’t get the true picture.’ Louden cites Habana’s daring try in the Super 14 final. He did two things distinctly out of the ordinary: the first was to pop up on the opposite wing; the other was to cut in across the chasing defenders when you would have bet the house he would hare it towards the flag.

For Louden, it’s difficult to pigeonhole Habana or to compare him with previous players. ‘New Zealand have the big, brutish guys. There are the workhorses from Australia and then there’s Bryan, who brings such finesse and an X-factor to the game.’ He says Habana is undergoing a growth spurt in his development as a player, both tactically and mentally. Importantly, Louden also reckons
Habana has come to grips with his place in the limelight. ‘He’s learnt to deal with all that. He’s a naturally happy person, one of the great human beings.’

The Aussie says Habana will freely admit when he’s playing poorly, and his response is what you would hope for from a player such as he is. ‘We had a famous chat, a very one-way conversation earlier this year,’ Louden reveals. ‘He responded to that and knew he wasn’t playing to his potential – admitting it, that’s key.

‘He’s certainly become more focused after being a bit up and down earlier in the season because of injuries. Guys like him get into a rhythm, and I’m a big believer of guys going onto reconditioning programmes, but old-school players just need to play to get
into rhythm.

‘He’s also learning to manage his time, because he’ll give to everyone. He probably needed to pull back a bit [socially] and he’s done that.’ McFarland is one of the troopers at the Bulls, a backroom staffer whose work with the defence, in particular, was a cornerstone of the Bulls’ triumph.

Habana’s attacking play earns the plaudits, but he is also one of the best defensive wingers in the business, his square shoulders, work rate and fearlessness combining to create a defensive brute. Habana credits McFarland for his work in this area. ‘What Bryan’s got is tremendous anticipation,’ says the Briton. ‘To get the amount of intercepts he does is phenomenal. He reads the play so well. This year he’s been hanging back a bit more and we worked on his one-on-one tackles. We now trust him to make the right decisions: whenm to go hard and when to back off.’

McFarland cites Habana’s superhits on Mose Tuiali’i and De Wet Barry as irrefutable proof of the wing’s destructive ability. Unlike many wings, he’s no shrinking violet as a defender. ‘His best improvement has come off the ball,’ says McFarland. Habana recalls that pair with a certain glee, but for him the biggest hit was when he smashed Barry Goodes in the first Super 14 game against the Cheetahs last year. ‘The timing was just right,’ Habana says with some understatement. Goodes was spectacularly nailed, the ball was dislodged and the Bulls went on to score.

Strangely, Habana says his hardest opponent isn’t another wing across the way but Richie McCaw, ‘who causes havoc and is incredibly difficult to stop’. James Small, a member of the elite wingers’ club, rates Habana as the best wing in the world. ‘No-one,’ says Springbok rugby’s former hard nut, ‘puts his hand up in the same way.’ Small, though, is at pains to point out what he calls constructive criticism. ‘He’s got weaknesses. He’s got to curb his temper. Look at his dangerous tackle on Percy Montgomery in the final. He struts and thinks he can get away with that – them refs will be watching him.’

It’s good advice coming from Small, who wore his heart on his sleeve. ‘I played hard too, but within the rules. Look, he must just temper that because he’s got everything else. Hell, his try in the final against the Sharks was like watching Maradona’s great goal against England [which followed the ‘Hand of God’]. What a special talent.’

Small says if there’s one technical area Habana should work on it’s his work off the ball. ‘He must work harder and get round the park a bit more, like he did in the final when he scored off the right wing. That was one of the few tries where I’ve seen him do that, like Joe Rokocoko. It’s just nice to have a striker like that. Just imagine him and Rico Gear in the same team – that’s like a wet dream.’

Much of Habana’s improvement is due to covering hard. ‘He’s got tremendous ability to get back to recapture a grubber or to make a cover tackle,’ says McFarland. ‘He’s got freakish pace. Look at the game we won in Sydney: two kicks went behind and he went off. Deadly.’

Part of what makes Habana the near-complete package is also his attitude. McFarland has dealt with a prima donna or two in his time. Habana isn’t one of them. ‘He’s one of the most coachable players I’ve ever come across,’ says McFarland. ‘He gives 100%, and I can count on one hand the number of sessions he’s missed in three years. He’s wonderful to coach, partly because he’s happy with life and there’s a chirpy side to him. Of course he’ll be a star at the World Cup; he already is. He’s so humble within himself. He’s always signing things for kids, that sort of thing.’

If the likes of Louden and McFarland have been so crucial in Habana’s development as a player, his father Bernie is the man responsible for making him the man he is. Bernie is nominally Bryan’s manager – ‘not strictly, because I don’t take a cent’ – but his prime job is simply being dad.

‘It’s been hard to focus,’ says Habana, ‘because there’s often a lot going on. But Dad does very well for me and all I need worry about is rugby. There are times when I’m made to be public property, but that’s part of sport.’

Bernie, whose great-great-grandfather made the trek to South Africa from northern Spain in 1871 (hence the Spanish surname), has been there every step of the way. He says the moment of truth, the realisation that Bryan could pursue a career as a professional sportsman, came ironically enough as Bryan was moving out of a low point.

Named after legendary soccer star Bryan Robson, Habana had endured shocking trials and had failed to make the national U19 squad. He was later chosen for the U21s and had a rousing tournament, nailing New Zealand with a hat-trick in an early game. His next game against them, in the semi-final, was something of a rite of passage. The man-marking on him was brutal, but he got up and dusted himself off each time.

‘He showed far greater determination after this,’ recalls Bernie. ‘At that point we sat down and said what we’d do. I was strict. He had to have an education and there was the option of joining my company. We agreed, though, that if playing pro rugby was his dream, we’d decide carefully how to approach it. I knew he’d be OK.’

Indeed, Habana has been the model pro. His dad runs a tight operation and keeps a firm rein on his commercial and media demands, as does Bok coach Jake White, who sometimes fusses a little too much in this regard. White infuriates the media by putting up the shutters, but when we break through, it’s only ever to laud Habana and to get his perspective.

For his part, Habana has mercifully kept his feet on the ground. ‘My family helps keep things in perspective,’ he says. Bernie’s phone didn’t stop ringing after the Super 14 final. ‘It does get a bit haywire at times, but we’ve taken a decision to build
relationships. And we choose things carefully, understanding the impact he can have on kids’ lives. This is why he won’t do alcohol ads, things with ladies or nightclubs, medicines … he doesn’t even do supplements because he’s not sure what impact they may have on kids. We are very careful to do good, wholesome stuff. He does lots of functions and also charity, which is why we helped the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust.’

In an extraordinary publicity coup (for both Habana and the Trust), the player was earlier this year pitted against Cetane, a two-and-a-half-year-old cheetah. Habana put on a great burst, but the blur of fur (0-100km/h in three seconds) whizzed past.
‘I’m glad she flew past,’ said Habana on one of the rare occasions he’s lost a foot race, ‘because it meant she wasn’t looking at my rump.’ Habana was an 11 sec 100m runner at school and he’s produced a 4.67 sec over 40m best for the Boks. He hasn’t measured his 100m for years, but reckons he’s quicker now.

In doing research for this report, only one player suggests himself as obviously faster: England’s Tom Varndell claims 10.8 sec over 100m in his socks as a schoolboy. Tonderai Chavhanga also claims a 10.6 sec best, but he’d be some way off that nowadays. Nigel Walker, the former Welsh Olympian and rugby international, believes no man is quicker than Habana. ‘If there’s faster, I haven’t
seen him. Joe Rokocoko and Doug Howlett are extremely difficult to catch, but I wouldn’t say they are quicker,’ says Walker. ‘As soon as he touches the ball, you can see defences thinking “oh, crikey”. But it’s not just pace he’s got. He’s wide and a real little powerhouse.‘The two quickest guys I played against were the two Kiwis Jeff Wilson and Christian Cullen, and I would imagine Habana is of that order, maybe even quicker.’

Louden believes the Springboks’ chances at the World Cup will depend heavily on Habana and his form. If a primed, red-hot Habana arrives in Paris for the opener, that will set the mood. ‘He’s an out-and-out game-breaker. The more you have of them, the more chance you have of winning. His mood and vibrancy set the tone. He gives an edge too. He’s going to be incredibly important at the World Cup.’

At this stage, only two scenarios threaten his chances: injury and, less likely, self-doubt. Habana is philosophical on both scores.
‘I wake up every day and realise I’m doing something I love. Injury could strike. I’ll have to deal with it. I’m not a guy to get too down on myself. I have this amazing privilege, and that’s what motivates me. I want to push hard. I’ve got age on my side. And as I learnt at school, talent can take you so far. The person you are is more important.’

Indeed, it is a joy to see the thrill on a child’s face when the Bok über-hero autographs a jersey or a sheet of paper. His message to them is short and sharp: ‘Dream big, work hard.’ It could be the motto of Bryan Habana himself.

– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine.