Bok who just wants to give back

Bryan Habana is so naturally self-assured that when he talks about his "calling" to close cultural divides in South Africa, it is without a hint of pretension or egotism.

"I have had my share of altercations with coloured people in Cape Town," he says, leaning forward in his chair and breaking into a wry smile.

"I don't understand how 16 years after the end of apartheid, there are young people still supporting the All Blacks.

"I don't believe it is fair that parents from the apartheid era continue to engender outdated attitudes in their kids.

"People say how much they love Nelson Mandela and then scream for the All Blacks to beat the Springboks," he continues.

"They don't see the irony in that. Madiba was so incredibly forgiving. It is sad that there are people who can't let go of the hurt of apartheid and move on."

In the course of his six years in the green and gold, Habana has scored 38 tries, starting with his first appearance (and first touch of the ball) in the Springbok jersey in the Test against England in London in 2004.

The only Springbok to equal that record is rugby legend Joost van der Westhuizen, who retired after 89 Tests. Habana has only played in 62 Tests.

During his time with the team, the Springboks have won a World Cup and two Tri-Nations. He aslo has two Super 14 championships to his name.

In 2007, Habana received the IRB Player of the Year award after equalling Jonah Lomu's record of eight tries in a World Cup.

The man who is variously nicknamed Dash, Habanero or Jet Shoes has even raced a cheetah to raise concern over the plight of the speedy animal. He lost, of course, although some supporters were surprised.

And now?

"It truly has been a watershed 12 months for me," he says.

"I got married (to Janine Viljoen), moved from Pretoria to Cape Town to relaunch my career and took over control of my career from my dad, who had always been my agent.

"I was very comfortable where I was in 2009. At the Bulls I was part of one of the most successful brands in rugby. I was playing with some of the best players in the world and in an environment where success was inevitable," he explains.

"While with the Boks I reached the milestone of 50 Tests. We won the Tri-Nations and beat the British & Irish Lions and, by the end of the year, I had to decide whether I was going to stay in that comfort zone or stretch my boundaries."

The professional split from father Bernie Habana raised eyebrows in the rugby world because Bernie was famously hands-on with his son - a father, agent, chaperone and manager all in one.

"Going on my own was a decision I had to make," he says.

"At the beginning of the year, my dad and I had a three-hour discussion about where I was and where I wanted to go. I am 27 and not getting any younger, and I wanted to understand the ways of the world after having been so protected by my dad.

"On my own, I have got to work with sponsors, read contracts, understand the ways of business, and my dad can now be my dad again. It is not an ideal situation to have father and son constantly mixing work and a personal relationship."

Be that as it may, Bernie gave his three children the invaluable gift of raising them to be unencumbered by racial baggage.

"Colour was never an issue in our house," says the ex-King Edward VIII High School pupil.

"My friends were white, black, coloured, pink and blue. The 1995 Rugby World Cup success was huge for me as a youngster and inspired me to be where I am today - even though that team, bar Chester Williams, was all white."

Humility was another virtue intrinsic to the Habana household.

"I was brought up to appreciate that, Springbok rugby player or not, I am no different to a person I walk past in the street.

"Yes, the invasion of privacy can get a bit much at times, but I understand that it is my duty to stop what I am doing and sign autographs and pose for photographs.

"These people have supported me for seven years, and I owe them."

Bok captain John Smit was once asked about how he dealt with being mobbed in shopping centres.

"It is not easy, but I can assure you that whatever I have to deal with, it is 10 times worse for Bryan Habana," he said.

Those fans are largely unsmiling right now because the Boks have suffered two heavy defeats in New Zealand. Habana gives a been-there-before smile.

"Over the years I have been through the ups and downs, the trophies, tears and the joy. I have been here in Brisbane and lost 49-0, only to win a World Cup a year later.

"We are in a process of integrating new blood so that when most of the guys retire or go overseas after next year's World Cup, there will be a foundation from which a new team can evolve.

"At the same time, we thought we could do this while still winning and these defeats have been a reminder to the senior players that we are very much mortal."

Habana says the unexpected hard times are a timely wake-up call. "If it is always plain sailing, then nobody knows how hard it is to get back to the top when things go wrong. I have learnt that it is harder to defend a title than it is to win it.

"I learnt at the Bulls that if you want to stay at No 1, you have to train like you're No 2.

"A lot of the newcomers needed to know what No 2 is like by going to New Zealand and discovering how tough it is to win there. They now know what is required if we are to win the World Cup in New Zealand."

It is hugely encouraging when Habana concludes by revealing that he is not going to be one of the seniors clearing off after 2011.

Nor will he sell his skills for pounds or euros - he'd rather stay in South Africa and mentor emerging talent on the field and build bridges.

He is, you could say, putting his money where his mouth is.

"As appealing as the south of France might be, my calling is to give back to South Africa, to inspire at grassroots all the way to the top.

"I understand how much I have to give back to my country - there is a bigger need and responsibility for me to stay here.

"I am blessed, privileged and honoured that I have been given the talent to do something I love while breaking barriers in this country across gender, race and age."

Madiba, a fan of Habana's, would indeed be proud.




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