Frans Steyn’s impact at last year’s World Cup added more prestige to a decorated career that isn’t over yet, writes CRAIG LEWIS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Without the versatility and ability of Frans Steyn, one of the Springboks’ most effective secret weapons at last year’s World Cup would have been neutralised.
This is not hyperbole. It has been confirmed by the Springbok coaching staff that their decision to take a gamble on a six-two forwards-to-backs split on the bench was possible only as a result of having a player like Steyn in their ranks.
Beyond his experience, Steyn’s ability to cover every position in the backline, bar scrumhalf, meant the Springboks could get away with the unusual selection.
It was this strategy that allowed the Springboks to empower the starting forwards to go flat out from the first minute in a brutal display of power up front before being replaced by the ‘bomb squad’ early in the second half.
The tactic was not without risk considering that more than two injuries among the backs would have left the Springboks with no choice but to play a forward in the backline, but ultimately the gamble paid off in the most handsome fashion. In the final against England, the firepower of a well-managed Springbok pack of forwards saw the South Africans demolish their opponents at scrum time.
It was a physical and mental ascendancy that laid the foundation for World Cup triumph, with Steyn proving to be the integral cog in allowing the Springboks to gear into overdrive through this substitutions strategy.
‘This was really something I thought could be a secret at the World Cup, but I didn’t know if the cast would stay fit all the way through. Frans was vital to that,’ Rassie Erasmus reveals in the compelling Chasing the Sun documentary.
Assistant Mzwandile Stick further enthuses: ‘Any coach would love to have a Francois Steyn who can cover 10, 12, 13, wing, fullback. He’s a utility back, he’s just a special ruby player.’
Without Steyn, and without this cleverly devised tactic, would the Springboks have gone on to win the World Cup as impressively as they did? It’s a question that can’t be answered, but it does serve to highlight the value Steyn added to the triumphant campaign which has largely gone unheralded.
Steyn’s return to the Springbok set-up in 2019 was an undeniable masterstroke after a two-year international absence that had followed his three Test appearances against France in June 2017. Before that mid-year series, Steyn had not appeared for the Boks since 2012.
Many will see it as a rugby tragedy that such a South African asset featured in so few Tests between 2013 and 2019, and at the start of last year, Steyn remained happily settled in France, having racked up nearly 100 appearances for powerhouse club Montpellier.
Yet, the Springbok coaches had more than a suspicion that he had more to offer the national side. Jacques Nienaber, who knew Steyn from his Bloemfontein days and had worked with him at the 2011 World Cup, takes up the story:
‘It think it was in March last year when I went over to France and stopped in Montpellier to speak to Frans. Straight away it was clear that he was super keen to play for the Boks again. I had a nice breakfast with him and his wife Linca in their house and when I spoke to him, there were no ifs or buts. He said: “It’s been a while, but I would love to play for the Boks and I would love to go to the World Cup. I’ll work hard.”
‘Frans had won a World Cup in 2007 and he was instrumental in the 2011 World Cup before he suffered a shoulder injury. We knew how beneficial it could be to have a guy playing in his third World Cup, with all that experience, and who was keen to be part of our team.’
Before the World Cup, Steyn featured in just five Tests off the bench, but his role was slowly starting to take shape as a player who could cover a variety of positions while bringing a calming influence and astute game management to proceedings late in the game.
Over the course of his career, it’s become clear that circumstances and coaching styles have failed to bring the best out of Steyn, but the Rassie Erasmus regime created an environment of total transparency, which suited Steyn down to a tee.
‘Rassie was always open and honest and everyone knew exactly where they stood,’ Steyn tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘But everybody also had a job to do, even those on the bench or in the wider squad because we had to paint pictures of the teams we were playing against each week.
‘Rassie was up front with me, he said, “I can’t promise you anything, but it would be good if you could join us,” and still today I’m so blessed to have been in that situation. All I can do is thank everyone for accepting me and making it such a special time.’
As the World Cup progressed, so Steyn’s role evolved as a leader and mentor, as one of the Boks’ most experienced players, and as an essential member of the ‘bomb squad’ on the bench. The 33-year-old was the perfect man for the occasion.
‘One of the things we look for at the Springboks is someone who wants to add value,’ says Nienaber. ‘Sometimes you add value by just being consistent, sometimes you add value by being the joker in the team, or just by bringing calmness or being a mentor. When it came to Frans, he was someone who wasn’t reserved when it came to sharing his knowledge and his experience. He was an excellent guy to have in the team because whenever someone wanted to know something and they asked Frans, he would share.
‘And from a coach’s point of view, when we debated a plan or strategy, a guy like Frans isn’t afraid to say, “Listen, I’ve tried that before but there’s this solution that may work a little bit better.” So there aren’t so many moving parts and you get the same outcome. He just genuinely wants the Boks to do well and I love working with him because he’s a straight shooter. If you ask his opinion, he will give it to you, and he talks sense.’
At times in the past, Steyn has appeared to be an enigmatic figure, misunderstood by some coaches. Yet those who know him well are quick to point to the fact he is fundamentally a man of principle, who wears his heart on his sleeve. This was no more evident than just before the start of the World Cup final.
As Steyn walked out at Yokohama Stadium and spotted former captain John Smit standing among members of a broadcast crew, he admits tears came to his eyes as he was reminded of the magnitude of the occasion and the road he had travelled since the 2007 World Cup final.
Smit tells SA Rugby magazine the feeling was mutual.
‘When Frans did come past, it was a surreal moment because here was this young kid who played with us in 2007 and kicked the winning penalty goal against England. He went from being a young, long-haired, care-free teenager to a mentor and impact player who covered so many positions. It was a special and emotional moment.’
In a memorable SuperSport broadcast that recently celebrated the career of Steyn, Smit expanded on the special attributes of his former teammate.
‘When I first met him, I though this is a loskop if ever I met one,’ Smith laughed. ‘But then you get to know this guy, and his best attribute is that he’s so hard to dislike, he is easy and uncomplicated, and the only thing he requires from people is honesty and to just be straight with him … I don’t see any changes in the way he approaches life, and it is a travesty that he doesn’t have more than 100 Test caps, but he’s got two World Cups.’
Schalk Burger, another member of the 2007 World Cup-winning club, shared similarly fond memories of watching Steyn in action.
‘To win two World Cups puts you in an elite group. You need some blessings and luck, but you also need longevity. You also can’t play rugby for that period of time without being a great person and player. When anyone asks me about Frans, the one thing that stands out for me is that he’s the only schoolboy rugby kid I’ve ever seen who could play Test rugby because he was so naturally gifted. He was very special and to harness that with such longevity in his career, and to still be going at 33, he’s done his talent proud.’
Steyn is now back in Bloemfontein. The career of the former Grey College superstar has come full circle after taking up a contract with the Cheetahs. It’s a career and lifestyle change that he is cherishing, and even at his age, Steyn admits to feeling some nerves.
‘I actually get more nervous now than when I was a youngster, because the main thing is you realise you’re coming towards the end of your career. When you’re young, it’s in the back of your mind that you don’t have to worry about stuff like that, but when you’re older you want to make an impression and to play well, and to make people proud, especially your family, who you don’t want to disappoint.
‘My kids have started to realise what I do and they watch the games, so you want to play well for them and that’s why I’m also a little more nervous these days.’
Yet, by no means is this necessarily the end of the Frans Steyn story. Still looking fit and in formidable form, there is every possibility of a shot at a second British & Irish Lions series title next year. It could represent a fairytale ending for a member of South Africa’s rugby royalty, but even the Springbok coach suggests there is no need for Steyn to prematurely hang up his boots.
‘I look at his game intensely: every cleanout he makes, every carry, every pass, every kick, and Frans is still playing good rugby’ says Nienaber. ‘If he continues to play good rugby and he’s a competitive warrior, age is irrelevant. I don’t know if he’s got it in his mind to stop playing in the near future, but if he carries on performing like he is now, well I’d hope he’s still playing in 2023.’
‘Frans Steyn was already well known to French rugby fans when he joined Jake White at Montpellier in 2016 to become one of the club’s ‘LangueBoks’ – a reference to the historic Languedoc region of southwest France in which the city sits and the number of players of South African origin at the club,’ says France-based journalist James Harrington, who followed Steyn’s career closely.
‘He had played 57 times in a three-season stint with Racing between 2009 and 2012, before returning to the Sharks. The Jake White era at Montpellier was an uncomfortable mix of measurable success on the pitch and falling attendances as crowds, used to the ‘sexy rugby’ of his predecessor Fabien Galthie, struggled to come to terms with the more direct and uncompromising style of the South African coach.
‘Steyn was integral to the Jake White method in Montpellier. In his first season, he was key to the club reaching the Top 14 playoffs, and winning the Challenge Cup title for the first and only time. He was, frankly, unstoppable in midfield, and accurate and monumental with the boot. While the White method was unfamiliar and unpopular to French rugby fans, Steyn was able to rise above it. For those Montpellier fans who stayed, he was a hero.
‘In his four and a half seasons at the club Montpellier always qualified for the final phase of the Top 14 – apart from the incomplete 2019-20 season, when they were eighth after 17 rounds. They even finished the regular 2017-18 season in first place, in what was arguably Steyn’s most successful, and certainly busiest season with the club. He started 31 times in all competitions, scoring five tries, as Montpellier won through to the final of the Top 14 – only to be mugged at Stade de France by a streetwise Castres.’
‘He may regret not winning the Bouclier de Brennus – Montpellier never had a better chance than in 2018 – but he was instrumental in Montpellier winning their first European silverware. And his stint at the club helped relaunch his international career when Rassie Erasmus took the reins – with World Cup-winning results.’
TRIBUTES TO STEYN
Stefan Terblanche: ‘There’s a lot of rugby left in Frans Steyn, and he can offer a lot at the Cheetahs and to the youngsters, as well as going into the massive British & Irish Lions tour. He’s such a great rugby talent with natural ability.’
Braam van Straaten: ‘Just looking at Frans, he’s one of the tough guys and he doesn’t mind taking on anyone. That inspires people around him to do the same. He’s an incredible talent, he showed it when he first won the World Cup as a 20-year-old. He brings a lot of cohesion and clarity to the game, but the big thing is his calmness because he’s been there before. When things start going pear-shaped, he says, “Give me the ball and I’ll show how to take it forward.” These are the characters you need in a side.’
Butch James: ‘I’ve been fortunate to play alongside some brilliant centres and Fransie was no different. He helped me with my career. It was great to see him at the World Cup last year, you could see how he had matured and was now one of the senior guys, and how the younger guys looked up to him. But behind the scenes you can still see how he jokes around; he’s never changed. Frans is a true legend of SA Rugby, and he may talk it down, but he will be remembered for many years to come.’
Victor Matfield: ‘Frans was one of those talents who came out of school and you knew immediately that he was going to become a Springbok. And a great Springbok.’
Ruan Pienaar: ‘Although he is one of the older guys, like me, he sometimes behaves like an 18-year-old and that’s good because he connects with the younger guys and they enjoy it. He brings a lot of experience and knowledge. It’s been great to have Frans in Bloem.’
Jacques Nienaber: ‘To go with a six-two split on the bench, we needed a guy like Frans who we could trust. It’s senseless to go with a guy who can cover all those positions but you are too nervous to put him on. I think that’s the critical thing. Frans covers a lot of positions and that makes him unbelievably versatile, but he’s a guy you want to bring on to the field with 15 minutes to go because he has composure and ability to win a game for you.’
*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!