Frans Steyn is thriving under Jake White and looks set to be a massive asset to the Springboks' cause as well, writes RYAN VREDE.
Just over a year ago Frans Steyn strolled into SA Rugby magazine HQ for a cover shoot and interview. He took a while to settle in but when he did he spoke candidly in response to any topic I raised.
I asked him about what France had done for Frans. He said his stint there had matured him. He said he needed to get away from South Africa's obsession with the game and it's (star) players. He confessed his ego had become a problem. This, remember, was a kid who'd won a World Cup by the age of 20 and a British & Irish Lions series two years later. And not only had he won those accolades, he'd played central roles in both. He added that being on his own in Paris had forced him to confront this area of his life. He left a boy but came back a man, he claimed.
However, initially there appeared to be very little maturation in his game thereafter. Clearly overweight, Steyn struggled to impose himself before injury cut his 2013 Super Rugby campaign short. He appeared a shadow of the dynamic player he once was and many believed should still be. Indeed, there were suggestions that he was washed up, the poster boy for early-blossoming talent fading fast. Even at his worst, that particular accusation always seemed foolish.
White's arrival at the franchise brought with it exactly what Steyn needed – someone to love him in the way he needs to be loved. Steyn needs to feel he is critical to the team's fortune, needs constant affirmation of his value and a coach with the patience to suffer with him when his form slips. He thrives under those circumstance and in White he has found a man with a large bank of emotional (and technical) capital ready for investment.
This first reflected in his conditioning and is now translating into his play. White places a massive premium on the former. His Springbok sides were seldom beaten because of inferior conditioning and this Sharks one bears a White trademark in this regard.
At this stage Meyer sees a Steyn/De Villiers combination as his preferred midfield
Steyn has been powerful, assertive, skilful, decisive and composed through the first month and a half of Super Rugby. Increasingly the swagger that indicates his confidence is high has returned. White will manage that confidence, ensuring it doesn't transform back into the ugly and debilitating ego that so undermined Steyn's cause.
The Springboks are poised to gain a player of immense value. Just after he took charge, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer gathered selected media for a video session designed to create an understanding of how and why the Springboks would have the tactical base they would. Meyer illustrated how critical a powerful, ball-carrying inside centre was in the context of his approach. Steyn was always his man, but his injuries have meant Jean de Villiers has occupied that role for the majority of Meyer's tenure to date.
At this stage Meyer sees a Steyn/De Villiers combination as his preferred midfield and will hope to settle them as a pair in his bid to unseat the All Blacks as the game's pre-eminent team. Lest we forget, Steyn is also one of the few players who can sink 55m-plus penalties consistently. At present, neither the All Blacks nor Wallabies have a player of this ilk and only Wales' Leigh Halfpenny has that distance in his boot in Test rugby.
On the few occasions Steyn and De Villiers combined in the past there were signs they could flourish. Here's hoping both steer clear of serious injury because the prospect of watching that Springbok midfield is a compelling one.
Photo: Barry Aldworth/BackpagePix