Road trip started a journey to top of sporting world

As Barack Obama tries to make a difference as the President of the United States, it revives memories and stirs emotions for Bryan Habana.

South Africa's Bulls Bryan Habana celebrate after winning the final of the Super 14 rugby match against New Zealand Chiefs at the Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday May 30, 2009. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
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As Barack Obama tries to make a difference as the President of the United States, it revives memories and stirs emotions for Bryan Habana. It was 15 years ago, the Springbok winger recalls, when Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first black leader, a momentous landmark in his country's history. Mandela faced a huge responsibility, a mammoth challenge after his 27-year incarceration, but one he thrived upon, helping to rebuild a country reviled for its racist and divisive attitudes, and uniting black and white in the Rainbow Nation.

Habana is not comfortable that race is brought to the forefront when someone rises to the top in such circumstances, but knows how ground-breaking and how inspirational it can be for the next generation. The rugby union superstar is a good example of that, rising after the end of apartheid to become a hero in a sport revered by the white population. And among the people he has as role models are Mr Mandela, as he prefers to call him, the actor Denzel Washington and the golf master Tiger Woods. Habana was even nicknamed Tiger while at college.

All coloured and now there is Obama. Just a coincidence says Habana. "I never saw it like that. I just admire people who work so hard to make a success of his life, whether that's Mr Mandela, Denzel, Tiger or Barack," he said. "There are white people I admire too, like Lance Armstrong. I have read his books, his fight against cancer to win the Tour de France; an amazing guy. So too is Roger Federer.

"It's not about emulating, but someone to aspire to. To show that it's not impossible to achieve something good no matter how bad it may seem. "In South Africa we have crime, we have gangs, but you don't have to go that way. We have to listen, learn and to have a good dream. "We were glued to the TV to find out if Obama had become president. I welcome people who can make a difference, who can make a change.

"He has an aura about him that I have not seen in many people?amazing. "He will have a lot of pressure like Mr Mandela did, but I have been impressed by him and I hope he succeeds. "The world has had a lot of bad things going on and this could be a good thing. We need people who can make a difference, like Mr Mandela did for us. "To be sentenced to prison for so long and not hold a grudge is something amazing; he has such humility.

"I called him on his birthday last July and wanted to pass on a message when the PA said he wanted to speak to me. "I was in Perth [for the Tri-Nations] and shellshocked. He asked about our next game and when he could see us next. That sums up what kind of man he is, he was not thinking about himself on his birthday, but others. He is one of the most amazing men the world has ever seen." Then there is Tiger.

"It's not about his colour, but how one man can be so much better than the rest," said Habana. "How does he do it? What does it take? Does he set his standards so high that he cannot allow himself to falter or does he have such incredible talent? "It's hard to compare golf to what we do because team and individual sports have their differences. "I have some great players around me who can help, but Tiger has himself. He is so dedicated and driven. When he went to the gym to beef up, everyone else followed.

"He took golf to another level. He strives to be the best athlete in the world and that's what we all want." Habana, like Tiger, deserves similar recognition for his achievements, but he shakes his head at the suggestion. At 25, he feels he does not deserve a place among rugby, let alone sporting, greats just yet. "There's still so much left," he said, aware that his recent form has fluctuated, not always hitting the high standards he sets himself.

"I heard I had been nominated for some sort of Olympic Oscars for wingers with Jonah Lomu, Jason Robinson, David Campese, and John Kirwan, and I thought, 'that's got to be a joke'. I don't see myself there with these guys. "I've still got so much more to do to even be mentioned in the same category as them. As much as it's an honour and a privilege I will never give myself the boost that I have reached that."

Modest? "No, that's not it," he said. "For me it's a personal drive to be the best I can be and work unbelievably hard to reach that goal. "You can have highs and then lows, I know that. The thing with the best players in the world, like a Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Matt Giteau and Brian O'Driscoll, is they have done this year after year. "When I hang up the boots I want to be remembered for this. For me, Jonah was the best winger ever. He changed the way the game was seen."

Named Bryan Gary Habana by his father, Bernie, after the Manchester United footballers Bryan Robson and Gary Bailey, he was a late starter in rugby, only becoming familiar with the game when the Boks won the World Cup in 1995. He was a bright pupil, studying a degree in information technology and admitting he would probably have gone into marketing with computers if he had not succeeded in rugby.

But in a country with a troubled past, he admits he was fortunate. "Sometimes people would talk about apartheid and I would sort of be stupid about the fact there was something before, and different to what we have now," he said. "I went to the best school and was given the best opportunities to make a success whatever I wanted of my life. "My parents [Bernie and Faith] never talked to me, my brother [Bradley] or sister [Alycia], about what happened before. They told us no matter who you are or where you are going, if you work hard enough you will always get to the top.

"They said you are going to get racist remarks or sworn at on the rugby pitch, soccer pitch, but no matter what happens out there, just carry on doing what you want to do. Then the country started changing." It certainly did after that historic World Cup triumph. Habana's seven-year perfect attendance record ended when his father took him on a two-day trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town to see the opening game victory against Australia.

It was a rite of passage that put him on the path to sporting stardom. They picked up hitchhikers, he had his face painted and found out just why this sport created such a stir. "To see all these people of races and cultures, a diversity, coming together for one cause, to see Mr Mandela, was a real eye opener for me," he said. "I wasn't so sure about the politics back then, but to see this was special. I didn't know the rules, but I was transfixed. To see these grown men crying, first for the re-admission into the World Cup and then winning, was amazing.

"To have my face painted with the new flag and then smudged on a white man's jacket, that is something you don't forget. The one thing about sport is that it not only inspires, but unites." He watched the final too, awe-struck by the occasion and Joel Stransky's drop-goal winner against New Zealand. Unforgettable memories, galvanised in history, is exactly what Habana has wanted ever since he decided to pursue rugby as a career.

Fast and flamboyant, the man who raced a cheetah to raise awareness of the plight of the animal's future, says he is privileged to be doing what he is doing, but there is still more to come. Habana's record is not bad, though, claiming the IRB Player of the Year award in 2007 as he helped the Boks triumph in the World Cup - the first time since he watched them win in 1995. That tournament also saw him register eight tries, equalling the record set by Lomu in 1999.

The next tournament is two years away in New Zealand, but Habana, a star for the Pretoria Bulls in the Super 14, has more pressing targets in mind. "The biggest goal for me after the last World Cup was the Lions Tour," he said. "I remember the 1997 series and while I didn't understand what the Lions was all about, I did understand this was something special. "Seeing the amount of pressure the South Africans put on themselves to win that series was incredible.

"To see how much it broke them to have lost that series was something you can't fathom. "After that I got into it with all the history and wondering 'what was this amazing series?'. Everyone started talking about it and I was like, 'Jo'burg Lions, Transvaal Lions, what is it?' "The Lions story is amazing. It only happens once every 12 years over here. You can be part of two or three World Cups, but the Lions, you might only get one chance to play them.

"For myself, I set goals, short term and long term, win a Super 14, win a Currie Cup, win a World Cup and be part of the Lions. It was a four-year plan taking me up to this and I want to fulfil it." The next plan may well change as Habana plans to marry girlfriend Janine Viljoen and play in Europe, possibly joining the exodus of English players to France. "You have seasons in your life and once one ends, you refresh and re-group and see what happens next," he said.

"You grow up and your responsibilities change. "I do want to play overseas eventually, but I don't think I will come to England. "Too cold, too dull, too grey! This is my feeling and I will probably go to the South of France. Butch [James at Bath] and Gary Botha [at Harlequins] have been saying how good it is in England, but muddy pitches are not suited to my game." Whether a move will keep Habana's fires burning all the way to the next World Cup remains to be seen.

But he admits he has come a long way since the star-struck youngster who made a try-scoring debut in a defeat to England, then the world champions, back in 2004. "I have changed, I have learned and grown up. That debut, I remember I had freezing cold hands and toes and my first touch was a try. "To lose the game was disappointing, but what an occasion for me to play against greats like Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Johnson. They had achieved what I wanted to achieve.

"I have so much respect for Jason Robinson and am proud to say I played against him. "After the game when I was getting my cap, he came to say congratulations and he would look forward to seeing me establishing myself and doing well. "In one moment he lifted me so much. "From someone who has achieved so much, those kind of words do help and inspire. "I now wake up in the morning and I feel unbelievably privileged to do something I love each and every day of my life."

akhan@thenational.ae