Bryan Habana: British & Irish Lions’ ‘sea of red’ fans left me bewildered in 2009

Springbok legend and 2007 Rugby World Cup winner Bryan Habana chats exclusively to Sky Sports Rugby, looking back at facing the British & Irish Lions in 2009, and ahead to the 2021 tour.

Speaking as a guest on the latest episode of the Will Greenwood Podcast, Habana spoke about the current Springboks squad – 2019 World Cup winners no less – and what they can expect when the Lions visit between July 3 and August 7 2021.

That tour will be the first time the Lions have played a Test series in South Africa since 2009, when a Paul O’Connell-led tourist side fell short to Habana and co in one of the most titanic tours in history.

Like in 2009, all tour games in 2021 – including the three Test matches – will be shown live and exclusively on Sky Sports.

“There’s a number of reasons why they [South Africa squad] should be excited,” Habana said.

“There are some Test centurions who have never played against the Lions, because of that 12 year window and it falling at the start or the end of their careers where they just missed it.

“A Lions tour just brings something so different.

“I was a young, rugby enthusiast back in 1997 when Mr Guscott put that drop kick over in Durban.

“Getting to experience it in 2009, there was always this cataclysmic envisioning of what it’s like, but until you experience it as a player, you have absolutely no idea.

“I mean, running out onto Loftus [Versfeld] in 2009, which was a ground that had become synonymous with me, with success, with being at home, and seeing that sea of red on the east pavilion had me absolutely bewildered at what I was experiencing.

“I think because of it’s scarcity, because of the fact you never know if you’re going to get an opportunity – you might get a chance every four years to play a World Cup, but a 12-year span to try and get a Lions opportunity is just so, so difficult – I really do hope we never lose the beauty and history that is the Lions and a Lions tour.

“And there is actually a lot on the line for next year. Again, as in every year since rugby became professional, the Lions tour heading to South Africa has seen them come up against the Rugby World Cup champions.

“It’s 1-1 [Lions won the 1997 tour 2-1, Springboks won the 2009 tour 2-1], and as a World Cup winning side coming up against a Lions side which is going to want to do something historic, it just adds a little bit of spice going into 2021.”

With such intense and increased levels of support, both for the home nation and from the travelling Lions supporters, as well as huge television audiences around the globe, the pressure players experience during a Lions series is immense.

Indeed, Habana admits pressure and tension plays an undoubted part in such games, and very often a part in their outcome.

“Your mind plays some incredibly funny things on you when you get to that level,” he said.

“We all know in professional sport that the margins are so incredibly small and if we look at today’s game and fast forward 12 years from 2009, Schalk Burger probably wouldn’t have been on the field after 10 minutes [of the second Test] and all of a sudden that changes the course of a game.

“I still personally believe Schalk did not intentionally do that [eye gouge Luke Fitzgerald], he was just a very physical type of person. But that would have changed the game completely – having a red card 10 minutes into the game and having to play against a very spirited Lions side.

“It was probably one of the most brutally physical games I’ve ever been involved in.

“We all remember Drico [Brian O’Driscoll] on Danie Rossouw, and the physicality in and around that game and a Lions team that had to step up post that first half in Durban [of the first Test], every collision – no matter where you were sitting in the stadium – it was almost as though you felt and heard the bone-crunching contact points that were occurring.

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