Jake White has the potential to bring out the best in Frans Steyn once again, writes RYAN VREDE.
Frans Steyn is a rugby genius, an erratic and broken one, but a genius nonetheless. His sort of genius is adept at the artistry and science of the game in equal measure. His ilk are equally adept at thrilling and sending into despair, although the extent of the thrill is enough to elicit the investment of our hope for repeat performances. Simply put, the ride is worth the fall.
But the trouble with genius athletes is that it often takes someone very special to harness and extract the best out of them consistently. In the absence of such a figure, they flirt with mediocrity, get seduced by her, enveloped in her embrace, then succumb to her poisonous kiss.
Privately, Steyn will know he has betrayed his talent and is in need of an intervention, or risks his career spiralling downward from one that showed immense promise in its early years to one that will be remembered as a rugby tragedy. Step up, Jake White.
A 19-year-old Steyn found his most ardent believer in the then Bok coach. White had been watching Steyn from his school days at Grey College and had predicted his career path well before his dazzling displays for the Sharks thrust him into the rugby fraternity’s consciousness. White knew not only the player, but the man, and this was central to Steyn’s successful introduction to Test rugby.
Privately, Steyn will know he has betrayed his talent
It is so crucial, in the context of this piece, to remember we’re talking about a kid who, in his first full season as a professional, drove the Sharks to the Super Rugby final, kicked two drop goals against Australia at Newlands – one a stupendous effort from the touchline around 50m on the angle and another to win the match with four defenders bearing down on him – and one who exhibited his prodigious talent at a World Cup he was never supposed to start in. We’re dealing with an elite level of talent, not some hopeful rookie who may or may not be the real deal.
There were reminders of his genius after his Parisian pronouncement – an almost 60m drop goal for Racing Métro against Clermont in 2010, star turns against New Zealand in New Zealand and powerful performances in the 2011 World Cup. But he delivered with nothing close to the degree of consistency expected of a player of his calibre.
However, having been reunited with White, there is hope. We’re tapping into hope reserves with Steyn. This has to work. We desperately want it to work.
Sporting history will show that certain coaches are able to mine the best out of certain players. Fernando Torres thrived under Rafa Benitez at Liverpool in a way he has never done subsequent to their acrimonious divorce, Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn formed a formidable duo in Formula One and Brad Gilbert coached Andre Agassi to six of his eight tennis majors. But perhaps the most relevant comparison comes in the form of Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan’s partnership at the Chicago Bulls.
Jackson, in his time as head coach, was able to refine Jordan’s technical skill, improve his game intelligence, hone his conditioning and equip him to manage the game’s mental demands. Yet he refused to set Jordan on a pedestal above his team-mates.
Jackson spoke about this in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, saying it all began with a statement inspired by a book from an American Buddhist nun: ‘No man is an island. No man goes his way alone. What I put into the lives of others will come back into its own.’
This would have challenged Jordan’s wiring. You see, geniuses have a level of belief that is incomprehensible to mere sporting mortals. Ed Smith captures this concept best in his book, What Sport Teaches Us About Life, in which he writes: ‘Scratch a brilliant sportsman deeply enough and you reach a layer of self-certainty in his own destiny. The greater the sportsman, usually the more convinced he is of his own pre-destined greatness. The big stage means it must be his stage, victory has been prearranged on his terms. It must be perfectly rational for a great player to believe he has a good chance of decisively influencing the result of the big occasion. But that’s what he thinks. After all, well-balanced self-awareness and genius seem so rarely to co-exist.’
Asked how he managed this challenge with Jordan, Jackson replied: ‘I had a fortunate relationship with Michael. I didn’t buy into that [god-like] part of his being. actually had to ask him to cut back from what he was doing. “I don’t want you to be the scoring leader. The scoring leaders have not won championships.”’ White would do well to learn from this example.
'He is a prodigy, a sensational player, a freak' – Jake White
In 2012 I sat down to interview Steyn in Cape Town for this magazine. He offered a brutally honest self-assessment of himself when he was younger. He spoke with more honesty and maturity than ever before. France, it seemed, had matured Frans. Gone was the brash youngster I’d encountered previously, one who’d adopted a scatter-gun approach, downing anybody in his path with his verbal bullets. His ego, which he conceded used to be out of control, would previously not have allowed him this perspective, in the same way it wouldn’t allow him to accept that he could be one of the reasons a team he played in succeeded, not the reason.
This is one of the challenges White and Steyn face in their bid to resurrect the player he should be. The other is White finding a way to teach a 26-year-old how to want to improve.
Smith writes: ‘Talent is rated too highly. One [sporting] cliche that bounces around is: “He’s got the talent, so he’s bound to get better.” In fact, talent only matures when harnessed within a personality that is capable of self-improvement. And talent, ironically, has a nasty knack of protecting the talented from the urge to self-improve. Super-talented young sportsmen, never having needed resilience thus far, often lack the psychological capacity to develop it when life gets tough in the big leagues.’
This rings true for Steyn. He dominated schoolboy rugby, breezed through his debut Currie Cup season, made Super Rugby look easy as a rookie, won a World Cup with men whose faces still adorned his bedroom wall at the time, and claimed a Lions series winner’s medal aged just 22. Then life got tough.
Whether we believe in White’s capacity to be the catalyst Steyn needs to thrive once more is irrelevant. That White believes it is what matters.
‘I’ve known what makes Frans tick since he was a schoolboy; I know how he thinks,’ White said. ‘His whole life has changed; he has a child now, his value system has changed, and I’m sure that will have an impact on the way he plays and prepares.
‘Last year he went through three coaches before the year ended. He likes stability, he likes to be guided without force. He is a prodigy, a sensational player, a freak. He was spoken about as the guy who could change rugby. That’s what’s so exciting.
‘I sat him down and told him I really need him to show everyone what I think he can do. He’s still a work in progress. He came back here and had a knee op, so he’s not 100% yet, but everyone knows what his 80% is and that’s better than most people when they’re 100%.’
– This article first appeared in the March 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine