Habana: He’s been the total sports package

Cape Town – It will rankle with many international rugby connoisseurs that Japanese wing Daisuke Ohata, now 42 and long retired, stands atop the “official” list of most prolific try-scorers in Test matches.

With respect to the man who notched 69 dot-downs in only 58 appearances for his country, “Test” needs to be employed with caution.

He often had a field day in his roughly 10-year career for his country (1996-2006) against second-tier – the polite word is “developing” – sides that even Japan would frequently slaughter by loopy old margins.

Korea, Russia, Hong Kong, Arabian Gulf … these were the sort of nations/states/composite XVs who could often not contain the hungry Ohata, and his “Test” try count is even more dubiously swelled by matches against the likes of Australia ‘A’ and England ‘A’ being granted international status, to his further convenience.

No, the more legitimate holder of the mantle of premier Test try-scorer is farcically second-ranked Bryan Gary Habana, who visited the whitewash 67 times, usually against the finest and most traditional rugby powers on Earth.

The 34-year-old Habana – 35 in less than two months – revealed in a customarily understated manner on Tuesday that he was calling time on his stellar, astonishingly vastly-decorated career at the looming end of the European season, where he has been on the books of Toulon since 2013.

As quickly reminded in the widespread general and statistical salaams that appropriately, immediately followed, Springbok icon Habana has won pretty much everything there is, from very top of the rugby food-chain (RWC 2007 in his case) to the only slightly less luminary and treasured trophy levels for franchises, provinces or clubs.

If the nippy, almost ceaselessly effervescent wing had been a footballer, he would be deemed up there with the most naturally predatory strikers ever witnessed.

Habana gliding in elegantly at the corner-flag – he somehow did his slide with a unique panache, don’t you think? – conjures up the same images in the mind, really, as the specialist No 9 in soccer rounding the goalkeeper and then gleefully collecting the ball from the “onion bag”.

Not that he was merely a supplier of rugby’s equivalent of the “tap-in”, if we are to extend the comparison with the other ball game. Pace off the mark and ability to fizz through an unlikely gap meant plenty of Habana’s tries were agreeably manufactured from a notably long way back on the park.

But he wasn’t all about the aesthetic, either.

A no less lasting, own memory of Habana’s Test and first-class exploits will be his willingness to get his hands dirty, to clatter into injury-risking contact if necessary, whenever his team has been under the cosh.

He is probably the best wing, for example, that I have ever witnessed for his sensory ability in defence to anticipate trouble on the opposite flank of the field, often making enormous yardage at a rate of knots to help “mop up” when his ally in the No 14 jersey is helplessly grounded or being overstretched by attackers.

And speaking of No 14: although Habana will forever by synonymous with a No 11 on his back, he was also right up there among the best of modern wings for seamless ability to start on the right.

It requires considerably different angular awareness and positional sense, but Habana seemed to do just fine, thank you, on the not infrequent occasions when he was asked (and typically never seemed to raise any stink over it) to do duty on his “wrong” side.

He was wearing No 14 on the last opportunity I got to see him from a press-box in action for his country, the closing group match of RWC 2015 when the Boks – in an increasingly happy space again after the much earlier Brighton disaster – trounced the USA 64-0 at London’s Olympic Stadium.

With less transferable Lwazi Mvovo operating on the left, Habana, though already entering his Test twilight phase, gleefully notched his third and final hat-trick (one, against Samoa at RWC 2007, was four tries) for the Springboks, between the 41st and 60th minutes.

With his broad shoulders, but so usefully lowish centre of gravity, Habana has also put a few supposed specialist fetchers to shame with his ability to beaver away over the ball, so often surviving the hardest of opposition clean-out bids as he wrestles a pilfer for his team.

He comes another major statistical “second”, of course: to Victor Matfield for most Springbok caps. The former sports 127, and we now know that Habana closes agonisingly nearby, only three behind.

But within that stat lies another fairly meaningful one, perhaps not loudly enough trumpeted: Habana boasts the most Test starts of any South African.

The similarly yeoman Matfield, you see, played six of his Tests as a substitute (so 121 starts), whereas Habana has only featured on a Bok bench twice, making him one superior, for however it may matter to certain figures boffins, on 122.

One of Habana’s off-the-splinters appearances, of course, was his memorable debut against England at Twickenham in 2004, duly registering the well-beaten Boks’ consolation and only try, and at least lightening the November gloom for enthusiasts back home with his electric infusion and miniscule hint of what was to come from him.

As a salute to his longevity in Test rugby, just consider how long it has been since several team-mates that day packed up their boots: Percy Montgomery, Eddie Andrews, AJ Venter, Gerrie Britz … yup, it’s been a good while.

There are, of course, some decorated wings (or outside backs more broadly) with better try strike rates than Habana at international level.

But keep in mind that they overwhelmingly tend to be New Zealanders, and thus beneficiaries of the multitude of “set-up” opportunities provided to them by colleagues for an All Black side that has led the planet for fast, innovative rugby for a near-ridiculous period of time.

Still-active Julian Savea, for example has 46 tries from 54 appearances (0.85 tries per match), Dougie Howlett 49 from 62 (0.793) and Christian Cullen 46 from 58 (0.79).

But with the post-isolation Boks often hardly the most visionary or daring of offensive teams, and their wings sometimes prone to catching the proverbial cold, there’s a compelling case for saying Habana’s strike rate of 0.54 is still pretty damned special, thank you.

It was during RWC 2015 that, in the relaxed environs of their Thames-side resort base in leafy Teddington, I also got a pleasant reminder of Habana’s forthrightness and professionalism – he is long renowned as a model trainer and conditioning-conscious athlete, too – in public relations/media duties.

So much more used to the bland platitudes and clichés you get from pro sportspeople at press opportunities these days, it was a rare bonus when Habana got unusually expansive, sometimes to the point of eye-moistening emotion, after my question about what the future might yet hold for him at international level.

I was expecting a possibly guarded, 30-second soundbite; Habana instead gave me appreciated, from-the-heart ammunition for a more feature-length sort of piece.

It was also a pointer – as if it were needed – to his most authentic passion and drive when wearing the green and gold jersey.

If you asked me to scribble a different Springbok name, for purposes of inarguable legend status, on each of my five fingers of one hand … well, let’s just say Bryan Habana would decisively not be an omission.

He just had (no, has … this mustn’t sound like an obituary!) it all.

Oh, and one of the better attitudes to rugby, his country, and life in general, too.


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