Frans must fill flyhalf void

The decision to shift Frans Steyn to No 10 in the absence of Pat Lambie and Fred Zeilinga is a no-brainer, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Steyn spoke at a function in Durban a couple of months ago. It didn’t take long for that question to be asked.

‘What is your best position?’ one patron whined. Steyn's response was to say that he no longer cared about what people thought and that the debate was tired.

Indeed, these days, there is no need for a debate. Steyn established himself as one of the best centres in Europe while playing for Racing Métro between 2009 and 2012. He was one of the Springboks’ outstanding players at the 2011 World Cup, and it was significant that he wore the No 12 jersey during that tournament.

Heyneke Meyer believes that inside centre is Steyn’s best position, which is why he selected him at No 12 in 2012. Injuries have limited Steyn’s involvement with the Boks since the 2012 Rugby Championship, but he has made a statement in this year’s Super Rugby tournament for the Sharks. And he has done so at No 12.

So why shift him to No 10 at this stage? Well, Sharks director of rugby Jake White doesn’t have much of a choice.

Injuries have hit the Sharks hard, with Pat Lambie ruled out for the rest of the competition with a bicep injury. Fred Zeilinga hurt his hamstring in Saturday’s game at Ellis Park and could also face a lengthy spell on the sideline. White needs somebody to fill that void, somebody who fits into the Sharks’ game plan.

Steyn has already slotted in at flyhalf this season. Lambie missed the round-four game against the Lions due to illness, and Steyn was only told at the 11th hour that he would be starting at No 10. He went on to produce a result-shaping performance, as a goal-kicker and game manager. And when Zeilinga’s hamstring went last Saturday, Steyn stepped into the breach and took control.

White has praised the 26-year-old, who by all accounts is more focused than ever on his rugby. Bismarck du Plessis paid Steyn the ultimate compliment after last Saturday’s win against the Lions, stating that Steyn was the best rugby player he’d every played with.

In 2014, Steyn has managed to apply that outrageous natural talent consistently to help the Sharks to some big wins. Even now, having lost Lambie for the rest of the season, the Sharks are favourites to win the tournament because Steyn is still in tow.

His future is at No 12, and he will return to the midfield when Zeilinga becomes available again later in the competition. Zeilinga’s injury has cost the Sharks in more ways than one if you consider that Steyn was starting to forge a good midfield partnership with rookie No 13 S’bura Sithole.

When Lambie was ruled out, White resisted pushing Steyn into that flyhalf position right away. It was felt that Zeilinga, despite his lack of experience at this level, had the kicking game and the necessary decision-making ability to suit the Sharks’ game plan. Zeilinga’s elevation also allowed White to persist with the Steyn-Sithole partnership in midfield.

But now that Zeilinga is injured, White will need to reconsider. Steyn is the obvious choice to replace Zeilinga as the team’s primary goal-kicker, as his outstanding 2014 stats suggest. He should also be the entrusted with the No 10 responsibilities in Zeilinga’s absence. His game management has been excellent in the fixtures where he has been asked to play No 10. It’s not his best position, but it’s where the Sharks need him to play at this point.

Many will be asking why Tim Swiel isn’t promoted, and why the Sharks recruited the youngster from Western Province if they don't intend to back him. Swiel, it seems, is more a long-term project, and at this stage won’t be considered to start unless the Sharks lose yet another flyhalf to injury.

White started Swiel at No 10 in a pre-season game against Saracens. Swiel did some good things, but also made some costly mistakes. This could be put down to inexperience, and perhaps White has learned something from that fixture: that Swiel is not ready to call the shots at Super Rugby level.

Starting Swiel would allow White to keep that burgeoning Sharks midfield partnership intact. However, at this stage, the Sharks would want more stability in their halfback pairing. Steyn also boasts a great kicking game, and playing for territory has been a big part of the Sharks’ game plan in 2014.

We may see Steyn wearing the No 12 jersey for the Boks this June, or indeed when he features for the Sharks in the Super Rugby play-offs. But for now, the Sharks need a player of experience in that No 10 position, and there isn’t a better option available than Frans Steyn.

– Steyn is on the cover of the 200th issue of SA Rugby magazine, on sale this Wednesday.

Photo: Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli