Bryan Habana: The smiling assassin

Bryan Habana is a new kind of South African hero - a non-white superstar who can win a rugby match on his own. Hugh Godwin assesses the qualities of the remarkable winger
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The Independent Online

Nelson Mandela is too frail to attend the sixth Rugby World Cup final, and has sent a good-luck message to the South African team by video instead, but the wise old bird has got his hands on a Bryan Habana souvenir already. "Madiba" gave the tournament its most iconic image by wearing a Springboks jersey when he handed Francois Pienaar the trophy in 1995, and he knows star quality when he sees it. Habana, the flying wing with the chance to daub his name indelibly across France 2007, gave the ex-president his debut cap a couple of years ago.

Habana scored two coruscating tries to help the Boks win their semi-final against Argentina last Sunday, taking his total for the tournament to eight, equal to Jonah Lomu's record. The 24-year-old from Gauteng with the toothpaste ad smile is heir not just to the throne of Lomu but of Chester Williams, the black South African wing who – as Habana has done this time – scored four tries against Samoa on the path to the 1995 final. Among the many threats to England at Stade de France, Habana is the most obvious.

This is a story out of Boy's Own and out of Africa. Habana says he grew up in a family where colour was not an issue, which makes him a lucky citizen of a troubled country. The more so when you learn his father, Bernie, a wealthy man through his home improvements business, was banned from playing rugby after he attended a 1980 Lions tour match in Pretoria against the rules of his non-white union.

Less remarkably for a South African, the pre-teen Habana followed football, having been named Bryan Gary after Manchester United's Robson and Bailey. Only when Bernie fished Bryan out of school – the well-heeled Meredale Primary in Johannesburg – to fly to Cape Town and watch the opening match of the Springboks' 1995 campaign was a love of rugby instilled in the then 11-year-old. They went to the quarter-final, semi-final and final too. "I had to sit on dad's lap for the final," Habana recalled. "We had tickets but it was busy and the kids were passed from lap to lap. Grown men were crying when South Africa won."

There may be more tears before bedtime this evening and Habana, who picked up the oval ball and ran with it when he arrived at King Edward VII secondary school, could make petals falling from England's red rose. "The tournament isn't about one individual," he said a few days ago. "What's important to me is I'm making a contribution to this Springbok plan, though it's nice to be in the limelight."

The glare of attention suits Habana very well. He has charisma and that broad smile which breaks across his pleasant features long before he reaches the goal-line, usually with a lavish dive to finish it off. His eight tries to match Lomu's best in 1999 is only four short of England's total in this tournament.

Lomu expressed admiration, if not quite wonderment, as he described what Habana can do – and how to stop him. "Bryan's got outright gas and he uses it well," Lomu said. "You know the guy's got speed, so you cut off his space, even though Bryan has ways of beating people no matter what's in front of him. England have a defender in Paul Sackey who hasn't missed many tackles and I'm looking forward to seeing their battle. Sackey's good, he made a huge difference against Australia, making a crucial tackle, reading which man to take. But England's rush defence is risky. Bryan showed what to do with that [against Argentina] and that's to chip over the top and use his speed. He also reads the game well."

Habana's interception and 75-metre dash in the second half against Argentina brought him his 30th try in 34 Tests since scoring within five minutes of his debut as a substitute against England at Twickenham in November 2004.

He has been brought along famously by South Africa's coach Jake White and the Bulls' Heyneke Meyer. This year – when not hotstepping to the Bulls' winning try in the Super 14 final or putting four more tries past England during their June tour – he famously gave a cheetah a 30-metre start in a head-to-head race which the human speedster lost only narrowly.

Habana says he has not been timed over 100m since his teens, "when I ran 11 seconds flat. These days we only get tested over 40m and if I remember correctly my time was 4.81sec."

Ngwenya ran around Habana during a pool match and another sultan of the wing knows what England must do to avoid a hard life from Bryan. "England have done well at stopping people down the middle, throwing in bodies and not letting it go wide," said Rory Underwood, the RAF flyer for Leicester and the Lions who became England's most capped back. "Have South Africa scored from first-phase or even second-phase ball? Hardly at all."

That's the end of the good news. "The one thing that frightens me about South Africa is their ability on the turnover," Underwood said. "Give Habana half an inch, he needs nothing, he'll score. For that first try against Argentina it was turnover ball, a long wide pass by Francois Steyn, fly-half Butch James with a quick ball to Habana, and with a left-footed chip he was away. You've got to starve him of the ball, or be sure that if he does get it, you're in his face."

Lomu's stock in trade was his physical bulk but unless England can fit two Paul Sackeys into one jersey, that option is not available. Good thing, too, according to another neutral fan. "Rugby has found a place again for the classic winger, the finishing winger," said Joe Roff, the classy Australian whose demotion to the bench behind the bigger Wendell Sailor did England a favour in the 2003 final. "There was that period after Jonah Lomu when you had to have big, physically confrontational wingers, it was all the rage. Now they've gone away from that and guys like Habana who can genuinely finish are really valuable."

For his own good Habana switched from his initial position of scrum-half to the wing to score a hat-trick against New Zealand in the 2004 Under-21 World Championship. He was nominated for the IRB's world player of the year in 2005 – Dan Carter won it – and is on the five-man shortlist again for the 2007 award to be announced tomorrow evening. His hunched running style is inimitable, like a turbo-charged Joe Frazier. "I have been given a talent by the man above and it is my duty to make the best of it," Habana said.

"Every wing has to gamble," Lomu said, "to play what you see in front of you. It's pretty much the devil if you do and the devil if you don't."

So that is England's task, accomplished once in the pool stage but facing them one more time in this World Cup: to catch the tail of a devil and snuff out that winning smile.