After 15 years at play Bryan Habana, the man who was once compared to a panther, discusses the end of his run on the field as he gives business a shot
Sitting at the SLOW Lounge in Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile, sleeves rolled halfway up his arm, Springbok and World Cup-winner Bryan Habana looks a lot less like the menacing right winger with an insatiable appetite for tries and more like the entrepreneur he has now become.
The change was sudden. One day, he was recovering from injury and plotting a new season with his French club Toulon, the next he was walking into the Toulouse Business School getting his first badge in Business Studies.
“The decision to call an end to your sporting days is probably the most feared in a professional athlete’s life,” Habana says.
“You don’t really know what you’re going to be jumping into, even though they talk about preparing yourself for life after professional sport.
The transition is the most talked-about topic in sport because it’s so huge. When you’ve been doing something you love for five, 10, 15 years, you almost need to rediscover yourself once it’s done.
“But I’ve kept myself busy – even though I thought I would give myself time to reflect on the past 15 years, which hasn’t happened yet.”
In the post-training, post-gym routine that retired players find themselves, former professionals can often get stuck trying to find their next move. It’s an often depressing realization and a lonely time, filled with much angst and doubt.
Not for Habana. With much of the same finesse he weaved past seemingly closed spaces on the rugby field, he called marketing guru Mike Sharman after calling it a day and the pair, alongside Ben Karpinski, came up with sports marketing agency Retroactive.
“I had a chat with Mike Sharman – whom I’ve known since high school at King Edward VII School – when I announced my retirement last year and came up with the idea of creating something fresh and authentic within the digital sports marketing environment,” Habana says.
“Through Retroviral, Mike had been in the agency space for more than 10 years. He is not about being the biggest but just being the best at what you can do. Ben’s been in a similar space from a sporting fan point of view and he knows sport – not just one type but the heartbeat of it. Shaka Sisulu [Retroviral chairman] comes with a wealth of enterprise experience, which we all needed.
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Swapping togs, kitbags and sweatpants for bespoke suits, ties and matching pocket squares was always going to make for an awkward transition for one of the most celebrated Springboks of all time.
In rugby numbers, Habana has clocked 124 test caps and a record 67 tries for South Africa, not to mention the World Cup, Tri-Nations, Super Rugby, European Championship and Currie Cup medals that dangle from his neck.
In his post-rugby career, his numbers were dialled back to zero – his factory settings restored.
However, his relationships garnered through rugby have come in as invaluable human relations capital.
Seeing him give a talk at the Mining Indaba in February, you’d think he’s been an entrepreneur for years. Doors that he didn’t know existed have opened and his shoes are tap dancing into rooms that rugby boots cannot take you.
Already, the company can count Jawitz Properties, Cricket SA and Biogen among the clients they create storyfied, authentic digital marketing content for.
Habana says: “I am fortunate as well that, throughout my rugby career, I was able to create a brand for myself and work with some of the biggest brands in the world… Through these partnerships, I’ve been able to see how the other side works.
“Given my wide network, it made sense that I come into a role where I could engage with potential clients. Hopefully, I won’t get seen as Bryan Habana: P.A. to Mike Sharman.
Yes, it’s difficult and you definitely don’t earn your playing salary but I am fortunate to have opportunities leading up to the World Cup. The synergy is very good and there is definitely something special brewing.
Habana joins a growing list of ex-professionals who have veered away from the predictable coaching route – something he describes as more difficult than being a player.
Patrick Lambie, who retired recently, also ruled out the possibility of getting into coaching and is likely to join his father, Ian, and former teammate Guy Cronjé’s business partnership.
Other teammates such as Bakkies Botha (game farming) and John Smit (former Sharks CEO) have provided Habana with a good sounding board in this dark new world he has entered.
“There’s not a support group or a WhatsApp group where we all log on and discuss these things but I definitely chat to John, Jean [de Villiers] and Bakkies, who have entered this space.
“And of course, my wife [Janine Viljoen], who ran her own business in Cape Town, provides good support.”
Perhaps, the grass actually is greener on the other side.
– Sibusiso Mjikeliso