Bryan Habana: Can rugby bring South Africa together again?

Story highlights

  • Bryan Habana aiming for Olympic gold
  • Wing won World Cup with Springboks in 2007
  • Hoping to feature in Rio de Janeiro
  • Currently playing XVs with French club Toulon

(CNN)It was heralded as the breakthrough moment for the "Rainbow Nation" -- now Bryan Habana wants rugby to transform South Africa once again.

When Nelson Mandela pulled on the famous green Springboks rugby jersey in 1995 and inspired the team to win the World Cup for the first time, and on home soil, it was supposed to bring about a revolution to a country which had endured years of apartheid.
    Habana was 12 when South Africa defeated New Zealand in that final, just three years after being readmitted to the international sporting arena following the end of its segregation policies.
    Now he hopes to feature at the Olympics with South Africa's rugby sevens side and create yet more more history by winning a gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in August.
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    "I think being South African, being in a country that sport has offered so much in rebuilding -- in integration, in bringing people together -- being able to have this opportunity to do it again and hopefully be part of a team to bring back a gold medal, it's something not only I'd like to do but each every member would love to do," Habana told CNN World Rugby.
    "I've seen the importance of it. I've seen how it unites, how it breaks down barriers and how it brings on people. I would love that opportunity to do it again. It will be really special."
    In 1995, Mandela, the nation's first post-apartheid president, stood smiling next to Boks captain Francois Pienaar as he lifted the trophy in front of thousands of fans in Johannesburg. That success would inspire Clint Eastwood's 2009 Hollywood blockbuster "Invictus," starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.
    South Africa triumphed again in 2007, this time defeating England in the Paris final, with Habana the tournament's leading try scorer.
    Success at the Olympics would be just another chapter in an already glittering career.
    At the age of 32, he is the World Cup's joint all-time leading try scorer, has collected 117 international caps, been named as the best player on the planet -- and he's also gone head to head with a cheetah in a sprint race.
    The pace which once allowed him to clock 10.2 seconds over 100 meters may have faded slightly but his ability to break through defenses remains.
    Habana is one of several star names to make the switch from XVs to sevens ahead of Rio 2016, along with New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams and Australia's Quade Cooper.
    Returning to sevens after a 12-year hiatus, he said he was blown away by the increased fitness levels required for the shorter format of the game.
    He was released by French club Toulon to play tournaments in Las Vegas and Vancouver, with a view to earning a place in South Africa's Olympic squad.
    "The opportunity to represent your country is always a massive privilege and honor," Habana says. "Being able to do so at an Olympics event and being able to get a gold medal is probably the biggest achievement any athlete can do.
    "It will be immensely important, not only to these players but to our country. We've seen in the past gold-medal athletes coming home from the Olympics, and by doing the country proud it brings the nation (together) that so badly needs it at the moment.
    "It just does wonders that no other thing can do, you know, and like the great late Nelson Mandela said, sport has the ability to bring people together in a way like no other."
    Habana was part of the South Africa side which competed at the 2015 World Cup, losing to eventual champion New Zealand in the semifinal.
    The Springboks, shocked by minnow Japan in their opening game, nearly didn't make the tournament at all due to the ongoing dispute over quotas for non-white players.
    A case was brought against the South African Rugby Union on the grounds that the squad selected had failed to meet the government's policy on transformation.
    Habana backed then coach Heyneke Meyer, who said he had kept to the rules by selecting nine players of color in his team -- a figure which met the minimum quota of 30%.
    Habana has now returned to Toulon -- which continues the defense of its European title in next weekend's quarterfinals at the same time the Blitzboks take part in the showpiece Hong Kong Sevens.
    He made an impact in Las Vegas and Vancouver, scoring his first sevens touchdown, but is far from assured from a place in the Olympic squad. Teammate Seabelo Senatla is the competition's top try scorer, with 43 from 34 matches in the 2015-16 season.
    Habana has been replaced for this month's tournaments in Hong Kong and Singapore by debutant Siviwe Soyizwapi, with the 2014 Commonwealth Games sevens gold medalists sitting second in the world series standings.
    "I think we were all a little uncertain how exactly I could contribute (to the sevens side). This has been a massive learning curve for me, and I don't think I'm quite where I need to be yet," Habana told reporters after Vancouver, where South Africa lost in the final.
    "It is difficult trying to balance playing in the northern hemisphere and also contributing to the sevens group.
    "It's been a very special three weeks to be part of this group, I've been made to feel really welcome, and to be on the circuit again was a dream come true."
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