South African flyer Bryan Habana goes into Saturday’s Rugby World Cup semi-final against New Zealand at Twickenham just one try short of breaking Jonah Lomu’s tournament record of 15.
Habana, who as a fan watched New Zealand powerhouse Lomu rampage his way round rugby fields in South Africa at the 1995 World Cup, cannot get over being talked about in the same breath as the legend.
“For me he is an inspiration. In 1995, for me in that World Cup to see a guy like Jonah Lomu demolish England, he went on to become a global superstar. I will never forget. I was there targeting signatures,” said Habana.
“Records are always nice to achieve but the most important thing for me, throughout my career, has been making a contribution to my side.”
The sight of Habana in full flight, and the broad, almost boyish, grin he displays when he scores a try have made him a favourite of rugby fans around the world.
“It’s so humbling I’ve been able to do something with my God-given talent, to do something I love and to do it with teammates you have formed a special bond with and to do it for a country where rugby gives us so much back, it is a massive privilege,” Habana said.
As a leading player in post-apartheid South Africa, Habana, a member of the Springboks side that won the 2007 World Cup, has long been aware that his responsibilities extend far beyond the rugby field.
So it was no surprise when, in the build-up to the semi-final, he gave a moving tribute to South African teacher and rugby coach Zukisa Kela, murdered as part of a gang attack in Johannesburg last weekend.
“Losing a quarter-final, losing a semi-final, even losing a final of a World Cup would never be ideal, and losing is certainly not something we have on the back of our minds – but the loss of life is not something you can put a value on.
“That iconic moment of the late Nelson Mandela giving Francois Pienaar that trophy back in 1995, that was a watershed moment not only for myself and a lot of players, but for our country.
“So going out there on Saturday we’d like just to inspire, to give back and to hopefully unite a nation that so dearly needs it at the moment.”
The son of a mother who under apartheid was classified as ‘coloured’ and grew up in a shack on the edge of Johannesburg, Habana was educated at the exclusive King Edward VII School in Johannesburg.
“Even though my parents had to go through apartheid, and even though their experiences were a lot tougher than mine, we grew up without disregard for any type of person,” Habana told Britain’s Daily Telegraph in a recent interview.
His rugby talent soon became apparent and he made his Currie Cup debut for the Lions in 2004 before switching to the Blue Bulls in 2005.
Habana’s Springbok debut, as a replacement against England in 2004, saw him score the first of 64 tries in 115 Tests, to leave him joint second in the all-time international standings alongside Australia’s David Campese, with only Japan’s Daisuke Ohata ahead of them with 69.
Three years later, Habana was a world champion, having equalled another Lomu record in scoring eight tries at a single World Cup – a mark that current New Zealand winger Julian Savea has drawn level with at this edition.
Blessed with the sheer speed that is the hallmark of all great wingers, the 32-year-old Habana – now with French giants Toulon – also gets through a tremendous amount of work in defence.
“Bryan is always someone that produces it at the big games and has played well for me,” said South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer. “He’s a wonderful human being as well.”