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Habana on life's post-playing uncertainties

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'I can't tell you what I'm going to be doing post this World Cup from 8-to-5 as a job... nothing is set in stone'

Bryan Habana freely admits he is still getting used to the rugby afterlife, still adjusting to the term ex-rugby player. He lit up the globe for close on 15 years, winning a World Cup with South Africa and filling his boots with multi-trophy Toulon after initially carving out his reputation a sublime finisher for the hard-nosed Bulls.

But little over a year since he packed it all in in France and called it quits, he is still unsure where the post-playing fork in the road is taking him. He will never be short of notice – a personable guy like Habana will always stand out from the crowd.

However, as things stand, he knows he will be very much at a loose end once the few gigs he has lined up for himself in conjunction with the World Cup conclude at the early November close of the tournament.

What happens after that is uncertain but he hopes his general awareness about how tricky the transition can be from rugby player to identifying a lasting new career will keep him on the straight-and-narrow, ensuring his mental health is never something that he allows to take a turn for the worse.

“The transition period is one of the most spoken about things in the current professional sports climate,” the 36-year-old told RugbyPass. “I have said to quite a lot of people over the course of the last 14 months that you don’t fully realise how much of a bubble professional sport is until that bubble actually bursts.

 

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“I was pretty fortunate to have an extremely long career and for that I was very fortunate as it gives you time to prepare. I went back to study in my final year in Toulon and while my rugby career didn’t quite end the way I envisioned it to be, I was pretty fortunate that I built up a brand throughout my career that corporate brands wanted to be a part of.

“To still be a Land Rover ambassador, to be involved with Mastercard for World Cup and to be doing some punditry work for Channel 4 and ITV, I have been pretty fortunate. But the biggest thing is it’s never the same and there are various parts (of rugby) that you do miss.

“I have been fortunate with the transition period but I can’t tell you what I’m going to be doing post this World Cup from 8-to-5 as a job. Hopefully, along with the business interests I’m currently involved in, I can find my route, but one looks at what happened to Dan Vickerman a couple of years ago.

“There was a guy who had also gone back into the corporate space… and everything seemed to be hunky-dory, but he just couldn’t handle the pressure of the transition period and took his own life. There is a massive dialogue about this transition period and a lot of the players’ unions especially are trying to do help make that experience a lot less uncomfortable for the players.

“It’s not an easy thing to do, go through a transition period from something you love and have played for 15 years, been paid well and is your passion and then you have to potentially start at the bottom of the food chain in the real world.

“I have been very, very fortunate. It has been good and I can’t complain. Am I going to continue being fortunate for the future post this World Cup? I really hope so, but nothing is set in stone.”

Currently, he is rekindling his passion for all things South African. It was 2013 when he packed up and headed to France, but he has been settling back into his old haunts since moving home late last year with a young family that hadn’t been born when he took off to Europe.

“I absolutely love South Africa,” said the Land Rover ambassador with a genuine warmth for his homeland. “It has been really comforting coming back home. As a nation, South Africa is probably one of the friendliest people you will ever meet.

“We have got an extremely beautiful country and being close to family, being close to loved ones and that support structure now having two little kids aged five and one, that makes a massive difference. Even though our country is going through a lot of political turmoil and economic instability, it is still a fantastic place to be. What the future holds for me I’m not too sure, but at the moment I’m pretty happy to be back in South Africa.

“The sun shines a little bit more than it did in the French Riviera and it is definitely not as cold as having to go and play in Paris in December at 9 o’clock on a Sunday night. It has been great to be back. I have always been proud to be South African and I have got a few foundation elements going on and to give that commitment has been really special, to use sport as a vehicle to hopefully leave a legacy.”

He combined both – a vehicle to get him to sport – just last Tuesday, driving into the Eastern Cape bush in a Land Rover with Justin Marshall to host an impromptu rugby game with rangers in a wildlife reserve by way of acknowledging that the eagerly awaited Springboks-All Blacks World Cup pool clash in Yokohama is fast approaching.

“It was uniquely special,” he said about a bush rugby match that diplomatically ended honours even. “I have played at some incredible stadiums throughout my rugby career and been at some amazing rugby events, but never in my wildest dream did I think I would be on a grassroots type of field that had absolutely no grass on it, surrounded by lions, elephants, hippopotamuses.

“I know I raced against a cheetah in 2007, but this was a pretty unique experience. There was the mandatory Bryan Habana intercept but also a massive show and go dummy that I fell for from Justin that he scored a length of the field try with. We finished all square. We called it all even because in the spirit of the game we didn’t want to make anyone feel disheartened.”

It was enough to whet the appetite ahead of Japan 2019 where he feels as many as six teams have realistic hopes of lifting the trophy. He’s chuffed and surprised his Springboks are in contention.

A year ago, despite winning in Wellington against the All Blacks, he wouldn’t have been shouting from the rooftops about the Boks, suggesting that Rassie Erasmus’ percentages at the year’s end only mirrored and not eclipsed his predecessor, Allister Coetzee.

However, now that the Rugby Championship title has recently been annexed, he is buoyed by the possibility of witnessing Siya Kolisi do something no black South African has yet done. “It has been surprising and it has put a lot of excitement around sport in South Africa.

“Rassie is one of the great thinkers, not only from a coaching perspective but even playing the game he was one of those guys who would be worried about the amount of video analysis he was doing and then thinking about the game differently.

“We know what he was able to achieve with Munster and he has brought back a lot of experience and knowledge from that stint. From a South African supporter’s perspective, it’s wonderful to see the Springboks doing so well.

“I’m definitely going to be packing my Springbok jumper for Japan hoping that we are going to see the Springboks do well against New Zealand in that first game. Hopefully, we can see Siya Kolisi go on and become the first black South African to list the Webb Ellis Cup as captain.”

That would be quite the sight given the trauma that visited Habana and his colleagues in 2015, the Boks beaten by the Japanese in Brighton in one of the great upsets of all time. It’s a wound that still stings, regardless of the fact South Africa recovered to bounce back and finish third in the tournament.

“Horrible, it was horrible,” he said, looking back on that dastardly forgettable September 2015 day by the English seaside. “One of the worst experiences of my rugby career. To be beaten by a Japanese side, it hurt even more than one could have ever imagined.

“The manner in which we let ourselves and the jersey down was exceptionally disappointing. You look at it from a South African perspective as humiliating and disappointing, but what it meant for rugby was absolutely exceptional.

“To see the reaction of the Japanese supporters and the growth of the game in Japan post that, there are two sides to the coin but it was one of the most disappointing moments of my rugby career.”

Despite travelling the world in a stellar career that featured 124 Test caps, it was only last June when he touched down in Japan for his first time ever, himself and Wales’ Shane Williams embarking on the last stop of a promotional tour with the trophy that the All Blacks are looking to secure for a third consecutive time.

Bryan Habana Japan shock

Bryan Habana stands dejected following South Africa’s ambush by Japan in 2015 (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

That flying visit was enough for Habana to get a sense as to how very different this tournament will be from the finals he played in France, New Zealand and England. Local intel is a factor he reckons that shouldn’t be under-estimated, suggesting that Eddie Jones’ Japanese connections can give England a particular advantage.

“You hear of it being extremely culturally different and unique but until you actually get there you don’t fully realise how different it is. Eddie has intricate knowledge of the structures, the different ways in which Japan functions.

“It can potentially be a positive and an advantage for that England side. A lot of people have potentially never played rugby in Japan and the stadia are very different, the logistics are very different and Eddie will know those things and plan appropriately with the knowledge he has.

“Does it mean England are going to win the World Cup? Not necessarily but it does give them an advantage that no other coach other than the coach of Japan has.

“The top six teams in world rugby at present could potentially go on to win. More teams are vying to win it and even your so-called tier two nations could potentially raise some massive upsets. It bodes well for an extremely wonderful, culturally different, amazing World Cup.”

WATCH: Check out how Land Rover ambassador Bryan Habana and New Zealand’s Justin Marshall got on at Kwandwe game reserve in the Eastern Cape when they played rugby with the local rangers amongst the wildlife

Land Rover is an official worldwide partner of Rugby World Cup 2019. With over 20 years of heritage supporting rugby at all levels, Land Rover is celebrating what makes rugby, rugby. #LandRoverRugby

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'I can't tell you what I'm going to be doing post this World Cup from 8-to-5 as a job... nothing is set in stone'