PARIS (Reuters) - Bryan Habana had never seen an international rugby match until his father took him to South Africa’s opening match of the 1995 World Cup against Australia in Cape Town and it was an experience that changed his life.
A month later, he was sitting at Johannesburg’s overflowing Ellis Park stadium when Nelson Mandela handed the Webb Ellis Cup to captain Francois Pienaar after the Springboks’ victory over New Zealand.
It was a momentous occasion for all South Africans and the 11-year-old Habana was instantly hooked.
Named by his father after the former England soccer captain Bryan Robson, Habana had ambitions of being an international striker, but he decided there and then that he wanted to be a Springbok.
“It was the first time I watched rugby ... I didn’t even know the rules,” wing Habana told reporters.
“But it was a great experience. I remember we were all very proud of being South Africans.
“Being part of that total euphoria was really inspirational for me. It made me want to take up the game and give the country something back.”
Blessed with lightning speed and the strength of men much bigger than his 1.79 metre (5 feet 11 inches), 92kg (202 lb) frame, it was not long before Habana achieved his dream.
He made his test debut as a replacement against England in 2004 and marked the occasion by scoring a try with his first touch of the ball.
A week later, he was promoted to the starting side against Scotland and scored two tries. He has now played 34 tests and scored 30 times, including eight in this World Cup, equalling Jonah Lomu’s tournament record set in 1999.
Habana’s instinct for scoring tries has made him the deadliest finisher in the game, one of the biggest drawcards at the World Cup and a cult hero in South Africa.
Fans have written songs about him and earlier this year he raced a cheetah, losing despite a 30-metre headstart, as part of a wildlife campaign to draw attention to their dwindling numbers.
Habana’s achievements on the field have not gone unrewarded and he is one of just five players nominated for the IRB player of the year. But the only thing on his mind is beating England in Saturday’s World Cup final.
“The tournament’s not going to be about any one individual. It’s about the Springboks team going out there and representing a nation,” he said.
“Every guy in this team has got a contribution that he makes to the overall team.
“I am the guy who gives all the energy on the field and my role is to cross the try line.
“I’m really chuffed but at the end of the day it won’t mean anything if we don’t win.”