Bryan Habana had just turned 12 when he chased Jonah Lomu into the bathroom of an upmarket hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg.
The youngster had fallen in love with rugby during the early weeks of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, but there was only one man he was interested in.
“I was at the All Black team hotel getting signatures,” smiles Habana as he remembers. “Myself and my brother had to run into a bathroom where Jonah was to get his.”
As he said this the grin on Habana’s face grew ever wider. Now 32, the Springbok wing scored a hat-trick against USA on Wednesday night to equal Lomu’s record of 15 Rugby World Cup tries.
It is a record few thought would ever be matched. Habana, in his endearing, humble style, is keen to point out that it took him three tournaments to score those 15 tries whereas Lomu only played in two.
But if there was ever any doubt, Habana belongs in the pantheon of greats now. Key to South Africa’s triumph in 2007 he has, in the words of head coach Heyneke Meyer, become an ‘ambassador’ for his sport.
Both Habana and South Africa rugby have come a long way since 1995.
“1995 was a pretty important watershed moment in my career,” he said. “My Dad took me out of school for the first time ever and we drove from Johannesburg to Cape Town for the opening game.
“I was fortunate enough to go to the quarter-final where Chester Williams scored his four tries. As a family we went to Durban to watch that rain-drenched semi-final against the French and we are still not sure whether that was a try in that last two minutes.
“Then I was one of the fortunate 60,000 at Ellis Park when Joel Stransky kicked that goal over, where Nelson Mandela walked out there with the No 6 Springbok jersey on his back and handed Francois Pienaar that World Cup called Bill.
“For me it was an inspirational moment that made me want to pick up the game of rugby.
“I had never played it before 1995. In that World Cup, (it was amazing to) see a guy like Jonah Lomu demolish England all by himself, how he went on to become a global superstar.”
Now Habana’s name will forever be linked with Lomu’s. The two do not know each other personally but Habana is hopeful of spending some time with him during this tournament, with the legendary All Black in England doing promotional work.
In Habana’s mind, though, he will always be second amongst equals.
“I don’t think I can ever equate myself to Jonah and what he was able to do for the game,” said Habana.
“It was a massive honour and privilege to even be close to being seen in the same record books as him.
“He became the first global superstar the game produced and I have an unbelievable amount of respect for him.”
Now, though, focus switches to the quarter-finals and whether Habana can break the record against the loser of tomorrow’s game between Australia and Wales.
After that shock opening-day defeat to Japan, the Springboks are moving through the gears. A period of introspection and self-doubt has been followed by a back-to-basics approach that is paying dividends. They are dangerous opponents.
“After that Japan game, which was the first time ever in Springbok rugby forwards scored all four tries and no backline players, there were some doubts,” acknowledges Habana.
“But I don’t think we as a team ever stopped believing in ourselves. That Japan loss aside, (there has been) the response we have seen to instil not only some pride back in the jersey but some good passion as well.
“But going forward we know we need to make a step up. We need every area of the game if we want to make sure we can go one step further in this competition.
“We have a tough task ahead against either Wales or Australia, two top teams that have been playing unbelievable rugby over the last while and two teams that we have lost both our last games against. We know how hard that effort will be but we are looking forward to that challenge.”
Habana, in short, is a hugely impressive individual. Asked to provide a last word on his achievement he prefers to deflect attention onto others.
“Being in the team for 12 seasons is an unbelievable feeling,” he added. “Hopefully I will leave the 14 jersey in a better place than I received it.
“It is just humbling I have been given an opportunity by God to be blessed with talent, to do something I love, to do it with team-mates you form special bonds with, and to do it for a country where rugby gives us back so much. It has been an honour and a privilege.”
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