A fitter, on-form Frans Steyn will add great value to the Sharks and Springboks in 2015, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Frans Steyn is too good to ignore, and it is a matter of when rather than if he returns to the Springbok fold. Heyneke Meyer, and indeed the greater South African rugby community, will hope the comeback happens sooner rather than later. Indeed, the Boks’ World Cup title prospects could hinge on his availability.
One of the best players in world rugby, Steyn has played just six Tests over the past three years. Injuries, overseas club commitments, and contractual issues have seen South Africa’s answer to Sonny Bill Williams missing as many as 31 international games. It remains one of the saddest and most frustrating tales in the modern rugby narrative. And yet there is still reason to hope that the 2015 chapter could be a memorable if not defining one in the Frans Steyn story.
That he has the ability to make a profound impact has never been in doubt. The Boks won all three of their play-off matches at the 2007 World Cup when Steyn started at No 12. An injury precluded him from the 2011 play-offs, and the Boks missed his imposing physical presence and equally intimidating kicking game in their quarter-final against Australia. On the club scene, he’s been the go-to man at Racing Métro, the Sharks, and most recently at the Toshiba Brave Lupus. When he is fit and available, Steyn’s is the first name on any team sheet.
Steyn has consistently expressed his desire to play 100 Tests for the Boks, and to help South Africa clinch a third world title. Some felt the opposite was true when he abruptly left the Bok camp just five days before the first Test against Wales last June. However, Steyn later told local news service, EWN, that he desperately wanted to play for the Boks. When Saru failed to live up to its side of a contractual agreement, he felt he needed to put his rugby ambitions aside and take a stand.
Despite that premature exit, as well as his own disappointment at missing out on the entire 2014 Test season, it’s believed that Steyn still enjoys good relationships with Saru CEO Jurie Roux and the Bok coach. This is significant, given the start of the World Cup is only seven months away. There is still time to work things out; to ensure Steyn is reinstated. What’s more, the Boks are desperate for an experienced player in midfield as the injured Jean de Villiers is unlikely to be fit for the global tournament.
What is also significant is that Steyn is getting back to his best. He’s shed a lot of weight in recent months and produced some sparkling performances for Toshiba in the Japanese Top League. This is a view shared by many who keep a close eye on the club competitions in the Far East.
Gary Gold has followed Steyn’s career more closely than most. The former Bok assistant coach worked with Steyn when both were a part of the South African set-up between 2008 and 2011. When coaching at Bath and then at the Kobe Kobelco Steelers,
Gold witnessed Steyn’s brilliance in Europe and Japan first-hand. Gold will be at the helm of the Sharks this season, and it’s clear he has high hopes for the special player.
‘The overseas experiences in France and Japan, as well as the fact that he recently got married and had a child, has matured Frans a great deal,’ says Gold. ‘More recently, the opportunity to play in Japan has helped his confidence. He was the main man at Toshiba, and single-handedly destroyed us [the Kobelco Steelers] in the league stage.
‘I’ve never seen him in this sort of shape. He’s slimmed down, dropping eight or so kilos, but he still boasts that formidable frame. What slimming down has done is lend him more speed.’
The Sharks were the best South African side on show in 2014, even though they lost flyhalf Pat Lambie to injury early in the tournament. Despite that loss, they managed to win some big games with Steyn deputising at No 10 and assuming much of the decision-making responsibilities.
This year, Lambie will be back at 10 for the Sharks, and that highly anticipated 10-12 partnership of Lambie and Steyn should be allowed to flourish. Gold notes that Lambie’s return should free up Steyn to make a greater impact on attack from the No 12 position. His tactical kicking game was an asset in 2014, but we could see more from him with ball in hand this season.
‘He has the ability to complement a guy like Pat, and both are suited to a more balanced game plan,’ Gold explains. ‘When you have two first-receivers at 10 and 12, it gives you more options. Kicking is important, as you need to play from the right areas. However, when you have players who have the experience and the skills of Pat and Frans, you have the potential to alternate according to the situation. They are very good decision-makers. That’s a quality Frans probably doesn’t get enough recognition for. He’s an excellent decision-maker.’
Super Rugby will provide Meyer with an opportunity to assess this new and improved Steyn. It will also reveal how he fares in a 10-12 combination with Lambie, and whether that pairing should be backed at Test level.
Gold believes Steyn has the potential to complement whoever starts at flyhalf for the Boks. Meyer should take Lambie and Handré Pollard to the World Cup, and has already said he will select a flyhalf according to the conditions and opposition’s strengths. The selection at No 12, however, should be consistent.
‘Frans has already been to two World Cups,’ says Gold, highlighting the need for a seasoned and accomplished player in the Bok midfield. ‘He kicked a penalty to win the 2007 final, and was probably the Boks’ best player at the 2011 tournament. He offers you experience, but the simple fact is he is an extraordinary player.
‘I’m sure Heyneke will be tempted to use that Pat-Frans combo, which plays for the Sharks, on the Test stage. And then if he wants to use Pollard at 10 and Frans at 12, that will work well too, as Pollard will benefit from Frans’s experience on his inside.
‘Frans is one of the fiercest competitors out there,’ adds Gold. ‘I love his attitude and approach to the game, and I have no doubt he would add value.’
THREE YEARS OF HIGHS AND LOWS
June 2012: After a three-year stint with French club Racing Métro, Steyn returns to South Africa and commits to the Sharks. Heyneke Meyer selects him for the first two Tests against England, and the No 12 excels.
August 2012: Steyn misses several important goal kicks in the away Tests against Argentina and New Zealand. The former ends in a 16-16 draw, while the All Blacks win the latter 21-11.
September 2012: Steyn then suffers a serious ankle injury, is forced to have surgery, and misses the rest of the season.
March 2013: Steyn is handed the Sharks captaincy for the first three games of their Super Rugby campaign. The Sharks win all of those games.
April 2013: A loss of form sees Steyn dropped to the Sharks’ bench. When he returns to the starting side, it’s as a fullback.
May 2013: Steyn breaks down with a leg injury, is forced to undergo surgery, and is ruled out of the Boks’ June Tests as well as the Rugby Championship.
October 2013: Steyn is cleared to play in the Currie Cup knockout stage. He plays an influential role as the Sharks beat Western Province 33-19 in the final at Newlands.
November 2013: Due to his injury troubles and lack of game time, Steyn misses out on national selection for the tour to Europe. He uses the time off to undergo yet another operation on his leg.
March 2014: Steyn kicks seven from seven to steer the Sharks to a 37-23 win over the Lions at Kings Park. The stand-in flyhalf is named Man of the Match.
May 2014: Back at centre, Steyn helps the Sharks clinch an unlikely 30-25 victory against the Crusaders in Christchurch. The result is a Super Rugby first for the Sharks in that region.
June 2014: Steyn returns to the Bok squad for the first time since September 2012. He produces a powerful performance at No 12 against the World XV, and there is some excitement and expectation ahead of the next Test match against Wales.
June 2014: Steyn leaves the Bok camp a couple of days after the World XV game. Saru issues a statement saying that the centre’s international career is on hold for an indefinite period. Steyn later confirms that there was a contractual dispute between himself and Saru.
July 2014: The Sharks are forced to travel in the Super Rugby play-offs, and lose 38-6 to the Crusaders in Christchurch.
January 2015: Steyn is one of the standouts for the Toshiba Brave Lupus during the group stage of the Japanese Top League, although he cannot stop the side from going down 50-15 to the Panasonic Wild Knights in the semi-finals.
– This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine