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17th Apr 2024

Bryan Habana on the Sevens boom and four of rugby’s most underrated players

Patrick McCarry

Bryan Habana

“We’ve got the likes of Dan Carter here, this weekend, which is raising the stakes of beauty a little bit higher!”

It is dreary in Ireland as we connect for a Friday Zoom with Springboks legend Bryan Habana, but he brings the Hong Kong sun, and a heap of good vibes with him.

The last time we were fortunate enough to chat with Habana was in May of last year, when he dropped by the House of Rugby studio for a chat with Greg O’Shea, Lindsay Peat, Jason Hennessy and myself. We spoke ahead of the 2023 Champions Cup Final and I recall Bryan apologising as he had to pause the recording to take a work call. We tipped away with the show – me filling the former winger’s seat – until, about 15 minutes later, there was a rap on the door. Bryan poked his head back in – ‘Can I come back on?!’

It ended up being a show that ran for one hour and 42 minutes, with Habana more than generous with his time, full of great anecdotes and observations.

Back then, Irish spirits were extremely high. We were not far removed from the 2023 Six Nations Grand Slam and Leinster looked set to avenge their 2022 Champions Cup loss to La Rochelle. The Springboks were struggling to field close to their best team, and were heading into The Rugby Championship – with the World Cup beyond – stacking up the doubters.

So, 11 months on, it felt only fitting to start off the interview with the following – “We were all feeling so positive at the time, here in Ireland, and we were a bit cocky. And, of course, you bastards in South Africa ended up winning the whole thing again! Congratulations.”

“Thank you very much,” Habana replies, after a hearty laugh.

“We went in very humble. It was good not to make a lot of noise. Let the on-field stuff take care of itself and do what’s necessary. But what that does mean is, come July, you’re gonna have an absolutely spicy test series (between South Africa and Ireland), which is brilliant.

We returned to that topic, later in the chat, but first tackled his involvement as a HSBC ambassador, his role with the company in helping to promote the Sevens game, hanging out with Dan Carter, Brian O’Driscoll, Nolli Waterman, George Gregan & Co., and 15s stars Antoine Dupont and Michael Hooper both giving the shorter format a crack.

Bryan Habana

Bryan Habana on switching from 15s to Sevens

Bryan Habana was speaking with us from the Hong Kong Sevens, as part of the HSBC World Series circuit. New Zealand would go on to win both the men and women’s competitions, but Ireland men’s side did reach another semi-final.

Habana had his first experience as part of the HSBC ‘red polo gang’ at Dubai, in 2018, and loves following the circuit around the globe as the game, crowds and standards all grow. Having the likes of established 15s stars Michael Hooper and Antoine Dupont play the game, this year, in an effort to make the 2024 Olympics squads, is a massive profile boost.

Hooper is featured in a documentary about his switch to Sevens, entitled Going for Green and Gold with Michael Hooper. In the doc, the former Wallabies captain is open and honest about the challenges he has already faced, and what it would mean for him to represent Australia again on the world stage.

“Michael is trying to fulfil his dream of getting to go to Olympics. He, unfortunately, missed out on the 2023 World Cup in France [after missing out on Eddie Jones’ squad] so has thrown so much into playing for Australia at Paris ’24. We all saw how badly it went for the Wallabies, last year, and someone of Michael’s character, ability and mental fortitude was probably an ideal candidate to help them through a very tumultuous time. He was unfairly treated [then] and I must really tip my cap to him, as he has made a bold decision to give Sevens a crack.”

Habana played Sevens with South Africa in his early 20s, before going on to become a fully fledged legend of the 15s game and, in 2007, the World Rugby Player of the Year. He tried his hand at Sevens, again, in 2016, in an effort to make the ‘Blitzbokke’ squad for the Rio Olympics, so can relate to Hooper and Dupont.

“You had the likes of Sonny Bill Williams, trying to go from a [2015] World Cup win to an Olympics win, then you had myself and [with Australia] Quade Cooper. It does just lift that popularity of Sevens to another level. I got to play in Las Vegas and Vancouver but, unfortunately, got injured and missed the requirement [of tournament appearances] to make the Olympics, after getting injured. But the Blitzbokke did go on to win a bronze medal, and I was proud to be a part of even some of that journey.”

South Africa

Bryan Habana on underrated teammates and this summer’s Test Series

HSBC has signed on as principal Sevens circuit sponsors for another four years, so Bryan Habana and his red polo are set to continue their globe-trotting ways another while yet. He is a font of rugby knowledge and tackles every question eagerly, and earnestly.

Having played with some of the best players in the world – with South Africa and in Super Rugby and in Europe, with Toulon – I am fascinated to get his thoughts on underrated teammates.

“I look back on my time period with the Springboks and a person that jumps to mind is someone like Jacques Fourie. An incredible player, over 70-plus caps for South Africa, and probably one of the most consistently best performing players in the team. Even now, I can’t think back to a single bad game Jacques had for the Springboks, whether he was playing at full back, wing, or at centre, like he was when he got that try against the British Lions in 2009 [Second Test]. I look back at that moment, still, and go, ‘Wow’.

Frans Steyn is another that should be mentioned, there or thereabouts. A guy that, at 19 years old, won a World Cup (in 2007) with his country then (in 2019) became only the second ever Springbok to do it again. He obviously had a lot of ups and downs, with the choices that he made – leaving South Africa, going to Japan, and a lot of things – but he didn’t normally get the accolades that he deserved. I mean, his boot alone. That probably needs to be galvanised in gold, at some point!

“You then have someone like Bakkies Botha and Fourie du Preez, who was an absolute mastermind. There are a lot of other guys I could name. Looking at a winger, someone like [Fiji legend] Rupeni Caucaunibuca is a player that should be given a lot more accolades and credit, for what he did for the game of rugby. He was a phenomenon. But yeah, I’d go Jacques Fourie.”

Wrapping up our chat in a bow, we loom ahead to the upcoming two-Test series between Ireland and the world champion Springboks, in South Africa, this July.

“It’s going to be an absolutely incredible series,” said Habana. “If you look back over the last eight or nine years, South Africa haven’t been able to get over Ireland much. You had Ireland winning their first ever Test match against the Boks, in 2016, before we rebounded to take the series. Some tough November games. Then you have Ireland being the only side to beat us at the 2023 World Cup, and they have now gone on to win another Six Nations.

“It’s an absolutely mouth-watering series that everyone is waiting for. The hype is already building with Springbok alignment camps and that Six Nations. We have two incredible teams, two that are proving to be of the best teams in the world, at the moment and, and two teams that would want to go on and prove how good they are, against each other.

“South Africa haven’t, unfortunately, gone well against Ireland and it’s now an opportunity to pitch yourself against one of the best teams in the world and see how you come up. You guys don’t have Johnny Sexton any more, we don’t have Jacques Nienaber or Duane Vermeulen, so there are new looks and elements to it.

“So, yeah, absolutely mouth-watering. I’m excited for it, and everyone should be. Hopefully we see two fantastic Test matches, played within the respect and the values of the game of rugby. As titanic and as gladiatorial as it might be, may the best team win!”

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