Winging it

PUBLISHED: March 9, 2011

He may not have continued his habit of collecting rugby silverware, but after 12 months with DHL Western Province and the DHL Stormers, Bryan Habana says he has no regrets about his move to the Cape.

About to go into his second season as a key player in the team that was the sworn rival of his old franchise, the Bulls, the Springbok wing says he now feels fully part of the DHL Stormers family and is relishing every minute of the experience of living in Cape Town.

‘I enjoy it even more now than I did when I arrived a year ago. You could say I’ve fallen in love with the place, the supporters, the lifestyle and the rugby culture,’ says Habana.

It’s that last one, the rugby culture, which is most interesting and could raise a few eyebrows. And it is a significant statement, as it was the one thing Habana was nervous about when he decided to leave the Bulls.

After winning Absa Currie Cup and Vodacom Super Rugby trophies with the Bulls, it was understandable that he gave a lot of thought to the move to a rugby environment which up until recently wasn’t considered to be as professional as the Bulls. ‘I’ll be honest, it was the thing that initially made me almost think twice about the move,’ he said.

‘It was when I flew down to chat to Rassie Erasmus about his plans that I realised that maybe it could work out for me down here because I was very impressed with him and what he had planned. During our talk he reminded me a lot of my first chat with Heyneke Meyer before I decided to move to the Bulls from the Lions in 2004.’

According to Habana, the systems that Erasmus has put in place in his position as WP senior professional coach, have ?put this region on track to emulate the Bulls’ achievements.

‘I don’t think we should fool ourselves into believing we are there yet as a squad; we are still some way behind the Bulls in terms of starting a culture where winning the major titles becomes a habit and even an expectation. It was a case of so near yet so far for us last season in the Super 14 and the Currie Cup, and we need to go better than that and nail down the trophies before we can really say it is mission accomplished.

‘But it is also obvious that the systems Rassie has put in place in terms of succession planning, thus ensuring that the platforms are laid for sustained success, are working. I have been very impressed with the work culture that Rassie has introduced and right from the outset it was obvious to me that he was on the right track.

‘He has been astute in selecting the right people to work around him and implement his plans. For instance, I knew Robbie Fleck had a reputation of being a bit laid-back when he was a player, so I was shocked to discover how hard working he is. He is really flourishing as a coach. It’s the same with Matt Proudfoot. There is so much attention to detail and everything is really professional. And in the end it all comes down to Rassie and his influence.’

Failing to nail down a trophy after making the final in the two big competitions last season was a disappointment for Habana, but he says that has only translated into a greater determination from the DHL Stormers to make good this year by going all the way.

‘I can understand why some may feel that we exceeded expectations last year and that we’ll struggle to keep to those standards,’ ?says Habana. ‘It’s something the player leadership group has discussed. You’ll remember that in 2008, when Rassie first arrived, ?the Stormers had a good season and were unlucky not to make the semi-finals. But then the following year they fell away badly and failed to compete.

‘That’s something Schalk has spoken to the team about extensively. There is a big drive from the more experienced Stormers players – particularly those who are born and bred Stormers and have experienced the lows over the years – to bring the consistency that has been lacking. We want to make the Stormers regular contenders for the trophy.

‘We don’t want last year to be remembered as a one-off. We want it to be remembered as the start of something special for us. We would like to look back at 2010 and see it as the year when we made both finals and learnt from the experience.’

For Habana there is only one reason why the DHL Stormers never won a trophy last year – it all comes down to their failure to top the log in either the Absa Currie Cup or the Vodacom Super 14.

‘It’s already hard enough to play the Bulls in a Super Rugby final without having to play them at altitude at Orlando Stadium with their massive home support. Then to go to Durban to beat the Sharks in the Currie Cup final was also a huge ask. The first step is to ensure that we win the league and thus get to play for the trophy in front of our own fanatical fans instead of in front of those of the opposition.’

Habana says he enjoyed the five best years of his career at the Bulls, and wouldn’t trade the happy memories he picked up during his stint at Loftus. But he also thrives on the challenge presented by the more ball-in-hand culture that he has encountered at the DHL Stormers.

‘Our kicking game isn’t quite at the same level as the Bulls’, so we have to make up for it by carrying the ball a lot more. That is exciting, and last year we scored some of the most spectacular tries in the competition.’

Although he played well for the Stormers in the Vodacom Super 14, Habana doesn’t look back at 2010 as a whole with great fondness. His sharpness in the Stormers and Western Province jersey wasn’t matched by his form in the Springbok jersey, and the Bloemfontein Test against Australia – when he was booed by his own fans – was an experience he wants to forget.

‘If I had the answers as to why that happened I wouldn’t have been in the situation I was in,’ he says. ‘I think there were a couple of different contributing factors, but I wasn’t happy with my form either, on defence or on attack. I realised I let the jersey down and I went away in December and had a good hard think about it.

‘Fortunately I had the longest off-season break I’ve enjoyed in quite a few years, and I feel I’ve cleared my head now and come back refreshed and hopefully stronger from having learnt from the experiences I went through in 2010. I’m feeling confident now. I had two months of training building up to the new season, and it has been a good 12 months.

‘Of course with the World Cup coming up, there is a lot at stake this year. And I know I speak on behalf of all the senior players when I say we are aware of the many youngsters who are coming through to challenge for places. It is an exciting time for South African rugby, and it has increased the motivation for all of us to play well.

‘This year was always going to be a big one – part of a goal that I set for myself – and particularly after what happened in 2007 [Habana was part of the Bok World Cup-winning team and was the IRB Player of the Year]. I would like to make this year a big one.’

DHL Stormers Matchday Magazine