Springbok and Toulon winger, Bryan Habana: “God has given you a gift and it’s your responsibility to use it”

Cross The Line’s, Ollie Baines spoke to Springbok winger, Bryan Habana on breaking world records, the South African apartheid, racing cheetahs and becoming a follower of Jesus. A phenomenally honest and open interview from one of Rugby’s finest.

Bryan, it’s so awesome to be able to sit and chat with you. How’s everything going your end with Toulon? 

You know what Ollie, life is great over here. I really can’t complain. France first of all, has turned out to be a very different experience to what I initially thought. The reason being, back in 2007 I came to France for the Rugby World Cup with South Africa and I really fell in love with the place but I think it was because I was only here for 8 weeks or so. Now, coming out here and living here for the last few years is very different. I was very fortunate when I first came to Toulon, they were entering into a very successful time having won the Heineken Cup in 2013 and I went onto win the double with them in my first season, so it’s been amazing. On top of that, I’ve been fortunate enough to play with guys like Jonny Wilkinson and Carl Haymen, these guys are legends of the game and we went onto win the Champions Cup three times in a row in 2015, so it was sort of a fairy-tale beginning.

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When I came in, I was sort of a marquee signing and the expectation was always very different because, yes, I wanted to come in and be apart of a team and taste success with a club that gains success, but also in terms of moving to Toulon, living in a very French village was very different to me. I was very much used to the big city lifestyle coming from Cape Town which is incredibly cosmopolitan, so the adjustment period was big for me and my family and it definitely came with its challenges. Throwing on top of that, my wife fell pregnant in September 2013; we’d barely been here 2-3 months and that threw a bit of a curve-ball our way as it wasn’t something we’d really planned at that specific stage as we wanted to settle into the European lifestyle first! So that was a challenge because Janine had to go back to South-Africa, so we were both without each other.

As amazing as the Rugby was, being in a new country and challenging myself with a new team and team-mates, it certainly was a real challenge. I do look back and feel very blessed as we had a fantastic support structure who were able to keep us where we needed to be mentally. But we are now in a great routine, we have wonderful friends here, Timmy, my son is now in creche and he’s learning English, Africans and a little bit of French – I think both me and Janine would call him a little Frenchy!

One thing France has offered off the pitch, is that it’s allowed us to spend more quality time as a family. Beforehand, Janine and I both had our previous responsibilities and arrangements back in South Africa, but now we are here there’s been so much more family time. We’ve had to venture outside our comfort zone somewhat but I think it’s certainly been worth it.

Going back to the beginning, growing up in South African, do you think you were always destined to be a professional Rugby player?

I got named after Bryan Robson and Gary Bailey – being Manchester United legends, Soccer was the immediate choice for me. I went to primary school where Rugby wasn’t offered as one of the extra-curricula activities so it was all Soccer throughout primary school for me to be honest.

I had quite a watershed experience back in 1995, my Dad who had a real passion for the game but never forced it upon me, took me out of school and we want on a father-son trip for Johannesburg to Cape Town to watch the opening game of the Rugby World Cup where South Africa took on Australia and there was so must hype around the country not just being in a World Cup but hosting it after we were in isolation for a few years. Being a youngster, I didn’t really understand the apartheid regime and my parents never really brought it up as an issue, my parents brought us up with pink friends, blue friends, white friends, black friends. So I never really understood what apatite was all about, and there I was sitting in a stadium with black people and white people sitting together, the South-African colours painted on their faces and joining in this pride of a nation in what was a key time in our countries history.

As a family we went to the Quarter-Final game against Samoa and then again for the semis against France which people would say we should have lost after they missed a chance to score in the last minute. I then had the honour of going to the final with my Dad, sitting in that stadium and see Nelson Mandela walking up with that Springbok jersey on his back and then watch Francois Pienaar accept that trophy, hold it aloft and say that this wasn’t for the 60,000 in the stadium but it was the 43 million in South Africa, it was an incredible watershed moment in my life.

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I think I instilled that into my heart on that day, so one day I would be able to do the same and hopefully one day be a part of a team that inspired a new generation of people and players alike. I took up Rugby the following year and to be honest, the dream didn’t quite start off as well as I thought it would!

My first ever game of Rugby, I remember my coach calling me “the little runt” because of my small stature, I was this little boy playing scrum-half and it really wasn’t quite the start I was hoping for. But for me, it was just fun to be able to play the game you love with 14 other friends and using the God given talents you’ve got to the best of your ability was something unbelievable.

That poor start actually culminated into me eventually becoming a Springbok and also being a part of that incredible 2007 side. To be able to go back to South Africa and hear the stories of how that team had inspired a younger generation was amazing. Stories of kids running two or three kilometres to catch a bus to hopefully see a glimpse of their heroes was quite special. All that effort, hard-work and training was just amazing. I’m so thrilled I’ve been able to have as many caps as I’ve had for South Africa and along the way, break records and score tries. The dream has been one that I’m very grateful to have been a part of for the last 12 years.

You mentioned earlier that you’ve gone on to break some world records and you’ve had so many incredible career moments, but what one stands out for you?

I think I’ve had a few of those, I think for me wearing that Springbok jersey for the first ever time in 2004, coming off the bench when we played England at Twickenham where I managed to score my first ever international try with my first touch, was just an incredible moment. It wasn’t the pinnacle but it was certainly the start of the dream.

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It was a culmination of hard work throughout the years, despite the highs and lows I kept going. When I look back now, I often think how it could all be so different. I could have come on in that game and done nothing and gone on to be a nobody in the game but I don’t think the fairy tale could have been written any better – except maybe if we had won the game!

One of the main attributes to your game is your pace. With that in mind, talk to us about these ridiculous races where you outrun Cheetahs and Aeroplanes! 

I actually started out playing as a centre and then on my debut, both our wingers were injured so I came on as wing and that was that really. I am very fortunate to have something like my pace, it’s a real gift that God has blessed me with and I’m very fortunate that it’s part of my locker.

Obviously, I’ve ended up doing some rather ridiculous things on the face of it, like racing against a cheetah but it was all to raise awareness for the life of cheetah’s, so it was a good cause. Then British Airways asked me to race against their new A380, which certainly was an experience, especially when I got about 50m away from that thing! There are many attributes and sometimes position specific that players need to have in their locker and for me, being a winger, having pace is really important.

I don’t think pace is the only thing, you absolutely need ariel skills, you need to have a great awareness and positional movement. I think for me, in the times where I had a dip in form, I almost had to reinvent myself and to be able to change up my position on the pitch. But of course, my pace has really helped me progress as a player further into the game.

It’s fair to say you are one of the greats in the modern game but how do you cope with being a Christian nut also a global Rugby star who is idolised by many fans?

From a Christianity point of view, growing up in South Africa, we already had a Christian mindset which you can sometimes take for granted. Since moving to France, I think I’ve noticed it a bit more. As a Christian, to be able to dedicate the talent to God and know where your strength and power comes from is humbling. I am privilege to do something that millions of people dream of, so it’s really important that I give all the thanks and praise back to God.

When I started out in my career, my Dad always said I can’t waste the talent that I’ve been blessed with. I didn’t want to be a one-time Springbok player, I wanted to use my God given talent to be the best I can be and also use it as a way of inspiring those around me along the way. I do think I took my Christian up-bringing for granted, it was almost fed to me from a young age and the same goes for a lot of people in South Africa.

I just want to make people proud by what I can do for them on the pitch. I didn’t want to be a flash in the pan and I think I will only be able to evaluate my career when I hang my boots up, but at the moment, hopefully I’m bringing joy to those who watch me play and I want to continue to inspire people of all races, genders and walks of life.

Bryan tell us about how you began your personal walk of faith with Jesus. You said just then that Christianity is quite a cultural thing in South Africa, but when did you make that personal commitment?

I grew up in an Anglican home. Church was more of a routine and a religious type thing, if I can call it that. I ticked the boxes: Sunday school, church, being confirmed so I could take the bread and wine, you name it. As much as I felt that there was a greater power out there, I never had that personal experience. But then, in 2008 I had been going out with my now wife, Janine and we’d been at university together.

Back then, they had a local church for the students which was very different than what I was used to. There was more life to it and I really enjoyed it. Janine had been involved in a home study group within the church with a few mates and she was being mentored by someone called Charlotte. Anyway, I go to church with Janine on a Sunday and she tells me that this Charlotte wants to meet with me and I thought, “well, I am Bryan Habana, people do ask to meet with me, that’s fine!” Janine told me that Charlotte doesn’t really follow or understand Rugby, so she wasn’t aware of who I was.

So I met Charlotte and we had a conversation where she started mentioning aspects and specific parts of my life that no-one would ever know about except me. She had me in tears within 5 minutes. She became so prophetic about my life and I think it was in that moment that I knew there was so much more about being a Christian than just a weekly trip to church each Sunday.

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I started walking a road with Janine and we decided to get married. A week before the wedding, I made the decision that I wanted to get water baptised and it was pretty amazing because 5 weeks after the baptism and the wedding, I found out that Janine had been praying that the man she goes onto marry would be water baptised. Janine never pushed me towards that decision, it was just something I felt I had to do after encountering Jesus and through the discipleship with Charlotte too.

Just like with any relationship, there needs to be a discipline but I soon discovered that when I asked him to be a part of my life, I needed to really work at entering into a relationship with him. So that 2008-2009 experience was pretty special as we could walk it together. Of course, we had our ups and downs, but that year really revealed to us the Christian walk and we were both ready to take it.

As a Rugby player, there is a level of aggression associated and very much immersed into the sport itself. How do you, as a Christian, try to have that competitive edge and “aggression” to your game, but still being a witness on the field?

It’s a pretty tough one to balance I think. I think that line can be become blurred, especially with the fact that Rugby is such a contact sport with aggression very much a huge part of that. But it’s also understanding that God has given you a gift and it’s your responsibility to go out there and give your all, to the best of your ability.

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Within that, it’s so important you do adhere to the rules and I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always get it right. But it’s knowing when to acknowledge where you slipped up, where you didn’t play by the rules, and in the same way we deal with sin, we ask for forgiveness and we try to be the best we can be in God’s strength. As humans, we are imperfect with the way we’ve been created, but with God we can have that perfect relationship with him, so I think it’s like with anything; when I cross those lines, it’s not about going into a tackle half-heatedly, not going into a chase and pulling out of it, but instead going in with 100% commitment, just as Jesus lived his life. Yes, we falter and get found out, but it’s also about going in 100% to the best of your ability that God gave you.

With your profile in Rugby, you have a huge platform available to you. How would you say that you are using your platform to glorify God?

There are subtle things and I honestly think there are parts of my life which I could offer up a lot more. Trying to share my testimony is something I find difficult, I’ll be honest. One thing I will do is that when I score a try, I will always look up and give God thanks. It might be very subtle and it might even be something where people don’t recognise what it is or what it’s for, but for me, I’m doing it with the right heart, that I am thankful for God’s blessing in my life. Just to give thanks on the field, whether that gets caught on camera or not, the thing that matters to me is that it’s about my journey with God. Like a lot of Christians, actions speak louder than words and the way we live our lives off the field is a huge part of your walk with Jesus. This world needs people who are beacons of life and inspiration. It’s not always about on-field tactics, but it’s a culmination of the two. I’ve never been in any media trouble off the field or controversy and hopefully that will stand in my stead when people look at me as a person too.

Time for fellowship can be difficult at the best of times, do you make time to meet up with other Christian athletes in the world of Rugby?

From a South African point of view, it’s pretty easy as there’s a Christian culture around the place. We will always have a home study group when we are on international duty which is great. There’s around 10-20 guys who are involved which is awesome. We are involved in lots of Christian organisations around the world which helps keep us all in touch with each other, things like Hillsong and Red Frogs SFU is awesome as we get flagged into churches whilst away. I must admit, since living in France it has been difficult. There’s a handful of guys who do their Catholic thing and go to Catholic church which is a little bit different to what I’m used to, but to have Janine there and friends back at home who we can connect with is always a great encouragement. It is something that is a struggle with us in France as there is a lack of fellowship, but I’m grateful that I can travel the world when with South Africa and we can tap into churches and have that time of receiving.

How do you cope with the pressure of professional Rugby?

I think it’s part and parcel of the way you live you life and your walk with God. Having God in my life means it’s so much simpler for me. Once you have things like family and faith in place, these things make it easier for me to keep me in a good place. I’m very blessed to have someone like Janine who is there for me, we have a solid core and we can rely on each other.

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No matter what the world throws at us, we have a way of living that makes it easier to deal with these pressures. It doesn’t mean it all goes away, but the fact that Jesus laid down his life to save the world from it’s sin, it puts things in perspective. Yes there a lot of things that one has to encounter as a Rugby player, but having God in your life does make it easier.

Finally, is there a favourite Bible verse that encourages you both personally and on the field of play?

For me, Pslam 139 is pretty good. It is quite a long Psalm but it strikes me when it talks about the fact that God knows how many hairs are on our head, he knew us before we even came out of our mothers womb, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. No matter where you go, God knows the desires of your heart and where you are. We can’t hide away from God but he is the one who knows us more than anyone else. He loves us so much and our walk with him is so unique and he loves and cares for us all. For me, that’s the verse I hold onto.

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