Bryan Habana chats retirement, Toulon frustrations, Nelson Mandela, Springboks and his best moment

South Africa great Bryan Habana talks exclusively to Sky Sports about the end, the beginning, the high point and what’s next.

“Retirement is almost a taboo subject in sport, which is remarkable given that it happens to every athlete. Winners and losers, veterans and rookies; none escape.” – Brian Moore, ex-England rugby.

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“It’s over. As hard as it is for me to say, it’s over. I will wonder if I made the wrong decision. I’m sure on Sundays I will say I could be doing that. I should be doing that.” – Brett Favre, American Football quarterback; Super Bowl winner.

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“People suffer from depression after retiring from sport because they aren’t sure where to apply that focus…there is a lot of focus and a lot of selfishness in sportsmen.” – James Cracknell, Britain’s double Olympic rowing champion.

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“Usually a person’s job is not their dream. At some point, an athlete has to give up their dream and they don’t do it because they have had a lifetime of it; they do it because they are forced to, and usually when they are in the rudest health.

“The last stage, acceptance, is often the hardest because athletes are trained to overcome, not simply succumb to their fate.” – Moore.

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“Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring… there is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion.” – Sugar Ray Leonard, former boxing world champion.

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“I’d give it all back, even now, if I could even just change my name and go back riding for another year or two without anyone knowing it was me. I’d love to do that. I think I’d be a lot better.

“I have moments all the time when I wonder if I did the right thing.” – AP McCoy, 20-time Champion Jockey.

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‘Professional sports people die twice.’ It’s a sentiment well-worn by many an athlete post-career. Indeed, the toughest battle some will face comes after their time in action has ended.

It’s a period in which lives are often turned upside down. Adulation gives way to normality, acclaim to a quest for purpose.

He’s keeping busy – exceptionally so – but is only too aware of the challenges that may await.

Though he announced his impending retirement from Toulon in April, it is perhaps at this time of the year – when players are back in pre-season – that his decision firmly sets in.

For the first time in almost two decades, he’s not playing rugby…

“It is a bit of a weird feeling,” he says with an agreeable smile.

“The last season of my career before announcing my retirement was probably not the way I’d envisioned it coming to an end.

“Being injured, getting a six-month rehabilitation programme, not getting selected by [Toulon head coach] Fabien Galthie for three-and-a-half months without knowing exactly why.

“It was quite the opposite of the initial thoughts I had, which was rather disappointing. But it did, in a way, make me learn more about myself.

“I was being mentally challenged and having to step up to the plate in an environment and process I never had to go through at any point in my career.

“I think I only ever played twice off the bench for the Springboks and was very rarely on the bench for any provincial side.

“It was in that period that I took a look at where life was going and where I saw myself going forward.

“We all know that period of transition is a well talked about along with mental health.

“The uncertainty that surrounds [what to do next] can be very scary and nerve-racking.

“I’m going to give myself a bit of time off to reflect on the last 15 or 16 years.

“Rugby has given me a life that I’m insanely grateful for. Through the highs and lows, through long pre-seasons and long years, I’ve made some fantastic friendships and have really been able to enjoy my time in the game.”

Habana is as polished an interviewee as anyone is likely to come across. Gregarious, accommodating, thought-proving.

Media trained in the sense he is accomplished at what he is doing, but not in the sense he seeks to avoid a topic. His honesty is refreshing and it’s clear the end with Toulon has left him irritated.

Through that final year with Toulon, you work out who you can confide in, who you can share your thoughts with, your ideas of what’s happening in your personal life,” he says.

“I had avenues to be able to vent and communicate with people within my circle. It made that whole experience and that frustration easier.

“But it’s never easy. When it’s out of your control, it’s difficult to overcome. From a mental toughness point of view, I’ve since learnt a lot myself.

“Very few people actually get to end on their own terms. You look at the likes of Richie McCaw winning back-to-back World Cups or Jonny Wilkinson winning the double in France. There are one or two who do, but for many of us, you actually don’t.

“That support system around you, to handle the frustrations, the disappointments, whatever you’re going through is really, really important in difficult times.”

Ahead of heading out for a round of golf amidst the UK’s heatwave, Habana chats potential business ventures going forward and a couple of brand ambassadorial roles for Rugby World Cup in 2019.

Yet the 35-year-old is still in great shape and could feasibly and realistically have played on. Why finish now?

Looking back, the reason I’ve called it a day is I’ve just turned 35 and have had a great run. To be able to push myself for one more year is a double-edged sword.

“To stay in rugby because I could, or to experience another culture in Japan or somewhere, the other side of that coin is I would take myself out of entering the business world for another year.

“The ‘real world’ is not going to stop and wait because Bryan Habana has decided to play rugby for another year.

“At some point, rugby has to end and you have to make that decision and go into the real world. The vision of doing some stuff at the 2019 World Cup made it easier.

“I’ve also got a four-year-old and a three-month-old and to be able to spend some time with family before life gets really busy – when you have to do an 8am-5pm job and you don’t see your kids – was another aspect.

“I just felt it was time to call it. My body could maybe have gone on a bit more, but mentally I knew the decision had to be made.”

Having lived in the south of France for five years, Habana, his wife of nine years Janine and the couple’s two young children, Timothy and Gabriel, are currently between Toulon and Cape Town, with a view to moving back to South Africa within the next 18 months.

As for what’s next for the former winger, coaching seems not to appeal and whether he remains in the sport at all in some capacity appears up in the air.

“At the moment I’m not quite sure I want to be hands-on involved in rugby.

“There might be a bit of punditry over the next 12 months. My family sacrificed a lot over the last 16 years so to now go into punditry or coaching where, in coaching you actually work a lot harder than a player, coming in before, leaving after, you do analysis on a Sunday post-match, it’s a thankless job being a coach.

“Given the experiences I’ve had, I’d love to pass on thoughts if there was the opportunity as a type of consultant or mentor in some form, either in South Africa or somewhere else around the world.

“But definitely I want to try and get a footprint within the business world. Exactly what that is, I’m not quite sure at the moment. I’m exploring options, trying to get some good advice in terms of what is actually out there.

“I’ve got some charity work with the Bryan Habana Foundation and I’d love to spend some more time being really hands-on involved with the kids at the various charities in London and South Africa.

“There’s quite a bit on my plate and I think it’s being able to structure that properly so you can get to everything, because at times what tends to happen when a player finishes is you put everything onto your plate at once and you don’t get out to all those things.

“Hopefully, I’ll have a time-management schedule which will allow me to get out to the things I feel are important, before settling down into whatever life after rugby really holds for Bryan Habana.”

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The middle child of Bernie and Faith Habana, Bryan Gary Habana was born in Johannesburg and was actually named after Manchester United footballers Bryan Robson and Gary Bailey.

Habana’s upbringing, alongside older brother Bradley and younger sister Alicia, was not one centred or even interested in the oval ball, but more so the round one.

That was until one summer in 1995…

“I grew up in a Manchester United-loving family and to be brutally honest, rugby was probably the furthest thing from my mind for the first 12 years of my life.

“It was only really that 1995 Rugby World Cup experience in South Africa that literally changed the course of my life.

“To be able to have been inspired by that group of 22 men, by Nelson Mandela walking out onto Ellis Park with that No 6 Springbok jersey and a Springbok cap on his head, handing Francois Pienaar that cup called Bill and uniting a nation. I was one of the fortunate few to have been among the 63,000 at Ellis Park that day.

“To have experienced that specific moment in time, which has gone down as one of the most iconic moments in sporting history, instilled and brought a dream inside of me to one day do the same.

“So having never played the game before then, to have experienced that unity, that inspiration and that coming together of a fairly new South Africa, in an environment where our history probably veered against what was happening at that time, is something I’m forever grateful for.

“Without it, I wouldn’t be in the position I am today.”

If the year 1995 was a watershed, then 2004 was a whirlwind.

Having started off the year playing Sevens for South Africa, Habana toured Wellington and Los Angeles in February 2004 – the first time the then 20-year-old had ever departed South African shores.

The Vodacom Cup was his next port of call – the tier below Super Rugby – before Habana travelled to Scotland in June 2004 to compete in the IRB U21 Rugby World Cup for South Africa.

Here, he excelled to the point at which he was approached to go and play in – and presumably in time, for – Australia. With little apparent options back home, the youngster was at a crossroads.

Yet within four months, Habana – who would go on to win a Rugby World Cup, a Lions series, two Currie Cups, two Super Rugby titles, a Tri-Nations title, a Top 14 championship, two European Cups and be named World Player of the Year in 2007 – would experience the biggest high of his entire career.

And it happened just down the road from where he reminisces…

“See I think 2004 was a bit of a blur for me,” he says. “It got to a point in July 2004, where I wasn’t really quite sure where my rugby was going.

“Then I got a call from the Lions who said they’d like me to be a part of their Currie Cup set-up.

“I got a few games in that and then, randomly, out of the blue, Jake White pulled me into the home leg of the Rugby Tri-Nations of 2004 which South Africa went on to win.

“Being based in an environment and culture alongside heroes of mine like Os du Randt, Percy Montgomery, Breyton Paulse, was absolutely fantastic. As a 21-year-old, to be on that stage, where no one really knew who I was after being picked out of relative obscurity was pretty insane.

“To then go on three months later and run out at Twickenham against the then world champions and score a try with my first touch of the ball in international rugby was a way in which my fairy-tale couldn’t have started off any better.

“It possibly could, if South Africa had actually won that game! But it was really special.

“To get to that moment of wearing your country’s jersey for the first time, and to do it in the manner in which I did, was truly fantastic.

“People ask me about my best experience or the nicest win, but that specific moment was probably the highlight of my career because it showed that I’d arrived on the international stage.

“I’m fortunate to have had a lot of success in my career but that moment in particular stands out head and shoulders above the rest.”

Even in a career glittering with major honours, the torment of the bad days often longs far more than the joy of the good.

For Habana, four dark days immediately spring to mind…

Wow…there’s actually been quite a few low points to be brutally honest.

“The 49-0 against Australia in Brisbane a year out from a World Cup in 2006. Getting booed off at Bloemfontein Stadium as an individual when I got taken off the field against Australia in 2010.

“That Japan loss in the 2015 World Cup was unbelievably disappointing, and then to end my career with my last Test match being against Italy in 2016 and losing, that’s something I definitely don’t look back at with a lot of satisfaction.”

And what of the current Springbok side?

Undoubtedly improving, but still a way off the abilities of Habana’s class of the late-to-mid-2000s. The summer’s series victory over England has given all of a green and gold persuasion hope.

“Obviously the last two years have been disappointing in terms of results and seeing Allister Coetzee go was not the best thing ever.

“As great as the June series win was, the big test will now come in the Rugby Championship to see where we really stand.

“It’s exciting and it’s a good time to be a Springbok supporter again.”

“Cuco Fuzion is a young brand getting into a market where we’re allowing people to understand the benefits of going natural. It’s great to be an ambassador with them in creating that awareness.” – Bryan Habana.

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