De Villiers: Steyn could have been the most-capped Springbok

In the ‘Fed to the Lions’ documentary, former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers explains his plan for a young Frans Steyn and how he could have achieved even more caps than he has in a Bok jersey.

De Villiers and Steyn opened up on their relationship during  ‘Fed to the Lions’, a new documentary series on De Villiers’ upbringing and tenure as Springbok coach between 2008 and 2011.

Coming off from helping his country win the World Cup in 2007, a then-21-year-old Steyn had the world at his feet and was widely regarded as the best young rugby player in the world.

However, he left South Africa in 2009 to move to France with Racing 92, after starting just two Test matches for the Springboks in De Villiers’ first year in charge in 2008, playing off the bench in a further eight matches.

In the documentary, Steyn says that while he couldn’t totally blame De Villiers, the former Springbok coach was part of the reason he initially left South Africa.

“I don’t know, for me personally it always felt as if he had to pick me,” Steyn admitted. “It never felt like he wanted me there, though. Me and Jaque [Fourie], we came back from the World Cup and we weren’t really in the mix.

“You must understand, as a player you get negative. I can’t say that it’s purely his fault. At the beginning, it was difficult for me to play for him, that’s why I went to Racing. It’s not purely his fault, but he is part of the reason why I left South Africa.”

De Villiers, however, offered an explanation as to how he wanted to blood Steyn into his Springbok lineup.

De Villiers said that he wanted Steyn to initally shadow former Bok centre Jean de Villiers and, as he got more experienced, to take over the inside-centre spot in the following two years.

“Francois Steyn was very different to most of the other players,” the former Bok coach explains. “From him, I learned how to handle those who rugby became so important for them that their whole life is built around it. He never understood the structures that I was busy with.

“At that stage, Jean de Villiers was my No 1 inside centre. But he was bigger than Jean, he was faster than Jean, he could kick further, he could play flyhalf. He had all the attributes to become better than Jean. The only thing he needed, was the experience Jean had. I told him that. I told him that if he could just sit still and follow Jean blindly, wherever he sits, you go sit, wherever he stands, you go stand. After two years, you are going to take that spot and nobody will be as good as you.

“He was then 20, I think, and he had almost 30 caps. He could have become the most-capped Springbok, the opportunities that would have come to him. That’s what I mentioned to him. But he thought that the here and now was more important.

“While I respected the decisions that he made, I never agreed to not play him and I never stood in his way. I think that the wrong advice at the right time made him make the wrong decisions for himself and for rugby. When Frans came back from France, he was never the same as when he left South Africa.”

Steyn would win the British & Irish Lions series and Tri-Nations with the Springboks in 2009, while also earning a place in De Villiers’ 2011 World Cup squad. He won a second World Cup with the Springboks in 2019 and is part of the squad for the ongoing 2021 Lions series.

Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

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Dylan Jack