Johannesburg – Ellis Park. It is a stadium where a World Cup was won, the father of the nation lauded and unification celebrated. On Saturday the Haka will be fronted up to by 65 000 fans and 23 Springboks, the challenge accepted, souls filled with national pride and heads bursting with fervour. It is a stadium of inspiration, a place where South African dreams are realised.
Bryan Habana was inspired to become a rugby player here on a brisk, sunny afternoon in 1995, as he sat with his father. This is where he first played professional rugby. It has rich memories for him, but neither history nor the aura of the place will beat the All Blacks tomorrow.
“A stadium isn’t going to win it for you,” said Habana.
“As a team, playing to the best of your ability and executing the plan that the coaching staff have put down, that’s what you focus on. It will always be about executing it better, and making sure the accuracy and success rate of that execution is better than the previous week. For us the plan is not going to change. It’s purely going to be about executing the plan better than we have over the last 18 months.
“It’s a fantastic venue with great history.
“Hopefully both teams can make it a special occasion. We’ll get as much energy from the outside factors as we do from ourselves.”
Much of the talk this week has been of the history of Ellis Park. You would have to search hard to find anyone who thinks that June 24 shouldn’t be a public holiday. Every press conference this week has included at least one question about the stadium, the place the late Louis Luyt, who passed away in February this year, declared “doesn’t have a bad seat in the house”.
On Saturday, the Springboks and the All Blacks are expected to turn it on for a packed house in what has been billed as the biggest Test of the year. No1 against No2 for the Castle Rugby Championship, the latter needing to score four tries, earn a bonus point and restrict the former from scoring a bonus point.
“I didn’t say anything about scoring four tries,” smiled Heyneke Meyer, the Springbok coach, at the team announcement on Wednesday. He answered the question twice, smiling both times. A journalist, working an angle, asked both Meyer and Habana about the 2007 Super Rugby round-robin match against the Reds at Loftus when Meyer wrote “76”, the number of points the Bulls needed to win by to secure a home semi-final, on a board in the home changing room. In 2007 Meyer said nothing in the media about wanting to win by 76 points. The Springboks know what they have to do.
“It is a massive game. Whether it’s a bigger game than any other, well, I’ve played in a British and Irish Lions decider at Loftus, and that was pretty massive as well. Each game is big in its own right. If we were just playing to make the numbers it might not have been as big. A lot of people are putting the focus on South Africa, but New Zealand are coming here to be champions as well,” said the wing.
When Habana walks to the Bok changing room through the entrance foyer of the west stand at Ells Park on Saturday, he will see almost life-size images of himself and Paul Roos on the left of the two front doors to Ellis Park Rugby Museum, which was opened this week. On the right door is a picture of Paul Roos, the captain of the original Springboks. History stalks the Boks this week. It lives on through them.
“On that famous day in 1995 I was one of the fortunate few to be there with my dad when Joel Stransky kicked that drop goal over, and also when Nelson Mandela wore the Number 6 jersey,” said Habana.
“For me, having never played rugby before then, having supported the Springboks but never really understood the game, those 22 men inspired me to hopefully do the same one day.
“Sitting there in the stadium and hearing Francois Pienaar say it wasn’t for the 60000 in the stadium but for the 48-million South Africans, that stuck with me for a while. The next year, when I had the chance to choose between rugby and hockey, rugby was a no-brainer.
“Why Ellis Park has become such a great fortress for us I will never know.
“Being on the Highveld, going back to the early stages of the 1990s and the ’95 World Cup, and success stories after that in 2000 and 2004, it has been a pretty special place.
“We show the kind of rugby we can play at Ellis Park.”