Lunch with Bryan Habana happens in New York, which is not where one would usually find a great South Africa wing. Not long before we sit down, though, the France centre Matthieu Bastareaud has announced a surprise move to the city’s pro team. In a World Cup year, the game is going global.
A full season has passed since Habana retired from the fray. He brushes off questions about whether he is tempted to play again, to follow Bastareaud into Major League Rugby, partly because one of his knees is shot. Neither does he plan to move into coaching, other than “perhaps some consultancy work”. But he is happy to discuss the prospects of his old Springbok comrades in Japan in September.
After desperate lows, including a loss against Italy in November 2016 which turned out to be Habana’s last international, the Boks bounced back in 2018 with a win against New Zealand in Wellington. The coach Rassie Erasmus, Habana agrees, has formed the most harmonious squad in some years, its racial balance somewhere towards the centre of an ever-uncomfortable seesaw under Siya Kolisi, the first black player to be the full-time Springbok captain.
Habana has discussed race and its place in South Africa at length, in these pages and elsewhere. Over ribs and hot sauce, he says again he does not like racial quotas such as that to which the 2019 squad is subject, preferring selection on merit, regardless of racial origin. But he understands the need.
He also repeats a familiar insistence that he does not count himself among those black players, his fellow wing Ashwin Willemse for example, who have struggled against great adversity. “I didn’t grow up your average person of colour,” he says. “I grew up pretty privileged. I got to go to the best schools, even though I became a symbol of hope.” He knows all about such symbolism. Having been introduced to rugby by Nelson Mandela’s historic embrace of the white man’s game, in 1995, he lifted the Webb Ellis Cup himself in 2007 as part of a squad which was still mostly white.
He marvels at how close he expects Japan 2019 to be, with “five or six teams in contention”, although he plays safe by picking the Boks’ first opponents, New Zealand, to win a third World Cup in a row.
Nonetheless, what would it mean for South Africa if Kolisi was to lift the trophy in Yokohama? “I think it would have a much greater impact than ’95. I think seeing Siya run out as captain in June last year pulled on the emotional strings like ’95, and rightly so.
Photograph: Ross Setford/Reuters
“For me personally, knowing Siya, knowing his personal history where he literally got raised by his grandmother, had nothing, then got an opportunity … for me this is about a player who first and foremost got chosen on his rugby playing ability. He got made captain on his leadership capabilities and thrived on that responsibility. He wasn’t a token player, being given a position because of our country’s history.
“If South Africa go on and win a World Cup this year outside of South Africa, with Siya Kolisi as the captain, it will be absolutely monumental, especially in a World Cup that is going to be so tough to win.
“For us as a country to have that inspiration, for 70% of our population to have that example, would be immensely important, on a par with Mandela in ’95 if not greater. It would be historic.”
Thinking of Kolisi, perhaps remembering how it felt when he was the one carrying the hopes of so huge and complex a country, he laughs. “So no pressure on him …” Habana has been retired for more than a year but he still spends much of his life on the wing. This trip involves “flights 43 and 44 this year, of which 28 have been international”, an itinerary that means he has “been away from home a lot more than I was in my last season at Toulon”.
As his wife and two young sons are back in Cape Town, he says, he will be “going for the husband of the year award in 2020”, not in 2019. For now he is inhabiting a higher plane, a sort of rugby limbo where recently retired greats press endless flesh on behalf of blue chip sponsors.
Habana won 124 caps for South Africa, scored 67 tries and won everything from the World Cup down. And so he crisscrosses the world, usually in the company of Brian O’Driscoll, often with George Gregan in tow.
“Calling an end to your career is one of the toughest decisions any athlete has to make,” he says, with a practiced but rueful air. “You’ve been doing it for so long.”
He made his provincial and Springbok debuts in 2004 and retired in 2018 after four years in France. He smiles, but says: “My last season was pretty crap, to be honest. Played one game, struggled with injury, then Fabien Galthié wouldn’t select me. So it was pretty frustrating.
“You have this idea in your mind about how you’d like to end. There’s not many like Jonny Wilkinson and Richie McCaw that end on their own terms. That said, as a winger to go 13 years professionally and end your career at 35, having won every tournament besides sevens I’ve played in, I really can’t complain.” He does not, even in response to more than one gleeful question about the Boks’ earth-shaking defeat by Japan at World Cup 2015 which he sidesteps easily.
Photograph: BPI/REX Shutterstock
He has simply chosen, he says, to give himself an “18-month buffering period”, an expression that seems apt for a proficient Instagrammer who confesses to too much jet-lagged time with his phone. He has his sponsors and in the UK he is a pundit for Channel 4 and soon, for the World Cup, ITV. He has also graduated from Toulouse business school.
“I got an idea of things I can do in that area,” he says, even though “writing a 35-page thesis as a 34-year-old with a newborn and a four-year-old was … not the most ideal”. He’s involved in a sports marketing agency back in South Africa but thinks that “post-World Cup I’ll have a better idea of what I want to be doing”.
Then, perhaps thinking of the great series of 2009, he adds a slightly wistful coda that suggests he might not quit the merry‑go‑round entirely. “It might be that the Lions tour in 2021 presents opportunities too …”
In fact, Habana’s New York opportunity came about not through a big sponsor but through Play Rugby USA, a nonprofit that takes the game into inner-city schools, seeking to instil “rugby values” – honesty, respect, dedication – in underprivileged students. For Habana, that meant a visit to the Bronx.
“I got a little bit of an understanding about what Play Rugby is about. You see these kids running around in organised chaos on a basketball court, inside four walls. It’s very different to what I’m used to seeing. But seeing them listening to a coach, putting their hands up when asked about their grades … it was just great.”
Habana has made similar visits to townships in South Africa but he plays down contrasts with New York’s poorest borough, happier to laugh about cluelessly bringing his boots to a school miles from the nearest grass field. He is famous around the world but the Bronx is not Bristol or Brisbane. The students had therefore to be primed, shown YouTube clips of their guest’s famous races against a cheetah and even a plane. Habana was duly challenged to step outside for a sprint.
The old fire still burns. As against the jet, if not the big cat, he won. “I might’ve been racing a 12- and an 11-year-old,” he says with another laugh, “but I was going to make sure of that one.”