An unbelievable ambassador, and the most recognisable player in the Springbok team.
That is how coach Heyneke Meyer describes the impact that centurion-elect Bryan Habana has made on the team and the nation over the last 10 years in the green-and-gold jersey.
The 31-year-old Habana will play in his 100th Test tomorrow when the Springboks take on the Wallabies at the Patersons Stadium in Perth, becoming the fourth South African player to join the 100 club after Percy Montgomery, John Smit and Victor Matfield.
Habana’s wife, Janine, and three-month-old son Timothy Jacob have also made the trip to Perth to support their husband and father.
“I am very proud of Bryan. I have coached him since he was a youngster and I am very proud of the man that he has become. He is an unbelievable ambassador for South Africa, not just on the field,” Meyer said.
“Whenever you go overseas, you don’t want to walk with Bryan because he is the most recognisable player, I can’t say in the world, but by far in the Bok team, and everybody just wants photos with Bryan Habana.
“He is always there to give autographs and time to children and to people.”
It wasn’t always the case that Habana, who holds the Springbok try-scoring record with 56, was so well-known – not even in the team itself. “Walking into the Springbok area for the first time and Percy Montgomery not recognising me was pretty awkward!” Habana recalled this week.
“I got inspired back in 1995 by Francois Pienaar and his side lifting the (World Cup) trophy. Seeing Nelson Mandela walk out there with the number six jersey, I started dreaming big, hoping that one day I could be part of something that did the same.
“It really has been a truly remarkable journey, and sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I literally have to pinch myself to believe that this dream is true. Being part of a team who inspires hope in a country that so dearly needs it, that lifts up spirits and provides passion where once there was none, is a pretty special journey.
“So as great as the on-field stories have been, the greatest part of being a rugby player is what happens off the field – the memories you make, the friendships that you are still able to stir up, and the times that you’ll never forget. Hopefully this amazing journey doesn’t quite end here and that there are still a couple of years left in me.”
And while milestone games are sometimes regarded as a distraction for the team, Meyer was adamant that Habana himself wasn’t allowing that to happen. “We always play well when we play for someone, if you look at our record.”
By Ashfak Mohamed
Follow him on Twitter @ashfakmohamed