Jacques Nienaber was so nervous he couldn’t watch Morne Steyn’s series-winning penalty kick against the British & Irish Lions, but has hailed the composure the veteran flyhalf showed. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
Not even the wildest rugby fantasist could have scripted the dramatic final scenes as the Springboks clinched a famous 19-16 victory over the Lions on Saturday.
Yet, as fate would have it, Steyn would step up to slot the match-winning penalty – repeating the feat from 12 years ago when he successfully converted the decisive kick in the second Test of the 2009 series.
Let’s rewind for a moment, though.
In the context of Saturday night’s heroics, it can’t be overlooked that before this third Test against the Lions, Steyn last played for the Boks in a losing cause against the All Blacks in 2016.
Then 32 years old, Steyn was one of the players who dropped out of the national picture, and many thought it might prove to be his final Test in Springbok colours.
Considering he was based in France, and seemingly in the twilight of his career, a return to the Springbok set-up certainly seemed highly unlikely.
However, his remarkable form on his return to the Bulls earned him a spot in the Bok squad. And, although he didn’t feature in the match-day 23 for the first two Tests against the Lions, his experience was seen to be invaluable for the third and final encounter.
It turned out to be a masterstroke as Steyn came on in the final quarter of Saturday’s closely fought battle and slotted two pressure penalties that turned out to be match-winners.
Immediately after the clash, Nienaber chatted to the media, and reflected on Steyn’s heroics.
“I was sitting with my head between my knees so I didn’t see the kick, I just heard it. But I’m just so happy for him to have had that opportunity. It was like a fairytale, obviously he did it 12 years ago and now has done it again.
“We are so fortunate to have three unbelievable flyhalves in our squad. And I must say this week Elton [Janjties] was phenomenal in helping us with our preparations. As Rassie [Erasmus] just told the team, Elton couldn’t have been a better Finn Russell in the week [in terms of mimicking what the Boks would face], and that speaks volumes about the squad system.
“Our philosophy is that you can be disappointed when not selected, but then the role of that player must change to contributing in different ways, and that’s exactly what Elton did.
“Obviously, as I mentioned earlier in the week, it was an hour-long discussion about who to go with in selection between the two, but we felt experience was key for this type of environment.”
And although it seemed like a bold move to replace Handre Pollard around the hour mark, Nienaber explained the rationale behind bringing Steyn on when he did.
“I’d love to take credit for substitutions, but it’s a team effort. It would be naive of me not to use Rassie, for example. I’ve been on the side of the field before when Rassie was in the box, and so when it comes to substitutions, we take everything into account.
“We discuss what Rassie has seen, what the medical team has assessed, how the players are feeling and if they’re getting into the battles we want them to.
“So, it would be lovely to say I planned it perfectly, but it was a coaching team decision, and I think it was spot on.”