Morné Steyn’s match-winning performance for Stade Français showed why he will be an asset to the Springboks at the World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
So much has been made about Steyn’s struggles in France over the past two years; how he has battled with the language, the culture, and ultimately how he has failed to make that No 10 position at the Parisian club his own. Indeed, it’s been plain to see how Steyn’s struggles have impacted on his appearances for the Springboks. In 2014, the decorated veteran was behind Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie in the flyhalf pecking order. He featured in five of the Boks' 13 Tests, and started on just three occasions.
But this past Friday, in the Top 14 play-off between Stade Français and Racing Métro, Steyn looked anything but third choice. The South African wore the No 10 on his back, and delivered a 10 out of 10 showing, figuratively and literally.
Steyn converted all 10 of his attempts on goal to finish with a personal tally of 28 points. As the final whistle went to confirm victory as well as Stade Français' first appearance in the Top 14 semi-finals in six years, Steyn was mobbed by grateful teammates. There was a cheerful acknowledgment for the part Steyn had played in a monumental win.
While Stade Français will be underdogs in the coming semi-final against Toulon, they will feel they have a chance with Steyn in such unflappable form. It's also worth celebrating if you're a supporter of South African rugby, as the best version of Morné Steyn could be an asset to the Boks at the World Cup in England.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer has been transparent in his management of Steyn over the past three seasons. Steyn was dropped from the Boks’ match-day squad in September 2012 after a series of poor performances. In 2013, Steyn enjoyed a great Vodacom Super Rugby campaign with the Bulls, and was reinstated as the Boks' first-choice flyhalf. He went on to play a crucial role for the Boks in a Test season that witnessed an 83% winning record. At that point, Steyn was back as one of the best flyhalves in international rugby, and a favourite to feature in Meyer’s 2015 World Cup squad.
Unfortunately, he failed to replicate that form for Stade Français, and would also struggle to maintain a high standard with the Boks in 2014. While he impressed in the home series against Wales, and with a match-saving goal-kicking performance against Argentina in Salta, most will remember the last-minute gaffe in that Test against Australia in Perth. Steyn’s failure to find touch gifted the Wallabies one final opportunity to launch a counter-attack, and snatch a narrow win.
While Meyer has openly conceded that it was a bad mistake, he has tempered the assessment by describing it as a bad mistake by a world-class player. In an attempt to bolster the Boks’ flyhalf stocks, Meyer handed Pollard and Lambie more opportunities in 2014. It may have seemed as if Steyn was being punished and cast aside, but Meyer said he wanted to explore other options at No 10 before the 2015 season. Meyer knew what he had in Steyn, and wanted to see what he had in Pollard and Lambie.
Steyn has kicked the Boks to some notable victories over the years. It was his combination of accuracy and temperament that clinched the second Test, and ultimately the series, against the British & Irish Lions in 2009. Steyn was just as influential in the Boks’ winning of the 2009 Tri-Nations, a campaign that saw the Boks recording three straight wins against the All Blacks.
Then there have been the Tests in which the Boks haven’t performed as a unit, and it's fallen to Steyn to win the game with his goal-kicking boot. In 2013, there was the Test against Argentina in Mendoza where Steyn kicked seven from seven to steer South Africa to a narrow 22-17 win. In the 79th minute of the Test against Wales in Nelspruit last year, Steyn nailed a conversion to give the Boks a 31-30 victory.
Meyer will know that goal-kicking wins World Cups, and the current form of Steyn will be viewed as significant. There may be other areas of the game in which Pollard and Lambie are stronger than Steyn, but presently it's Steyn who looks to be the form goal-kicker of the three. Lambie hasn’t played much this season due to a neck injury. While Pollard started the season well, he hasn’t been as reliable a goal-kicker on the Bulls’ tour of Australasia.
There's room for all three players in a 31-man World Cup squad. In 2014, Pollard and Lambie showed they can add value. Steyn has proved his worth on numerous occasions over the past six years, and his recent 10 from 10 effort for Stade Français is a powerful reminder of how he can influence the result of a high stakes match.
It will be interesting to see if Steyn can transfer his form for Stade Français to the Test stage in the five international games before the World Cup. It will also be interesting to see how Pollard and Lambie respond when they are granted Test opportunities in the next two months.
If all three are fit, they should go to the World Cup. But form, particularly goal-kicking form, will be a deciding factor in terms of who starts the big games for the Boks at the global tournament.
Photo: Charly Triballeau/AFP Photo