Experienced utility back Frans Steyn can add all-round value to the Springboks’ cause, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Frans Steyn raced back to field a clearance kick by Stephen Larkham. The end of the 2007 Tri-Nations Test between the Springboks and Wallabies was fast approaching. The hosts were three points behind on the scoreboard.
With seven minutes remaining, Steyn could have played the percentages. He could have carried the ball upfield and set up a ruck or he could have passed to a teammate in a more favourable position to counter-attack. Steyn’s position on the field – a few metres in from the right-hand touchline and 50 metres out from the goalposts on the angle – hardly seemed to factor into his decision as he spun round and kicked an outrageous drop goal. The sheer audacity of the attempt brought the Newlands crowd to its feet.
Steyn wasn’t done yet, though. The 20-year-old, who had come off the bench to replace Ashwin Willemse on the right wing, popped up as first receiver as the Boks entered the Wallabies’ 22. With only three minutes remaining, the youngster positioned himself to make the winning play and nailed the drop goal that earned South Africa a memorable victory.
Jean de Villiers remembers the moment clearly – that cameo against Australia as well as a string of influential performances at the 2007 World Cup marked the beginning of Steyn’s legacy.
‘It’s in that type of situation where he’s at his absolute best,’ the former Bok centre tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘The game is in the balance, the team is looking for something special and then Frans takes it upon himself to deliver the knockout blow.
‘We all know he’s got the skills to make those plays, but to do it in a game, and especially in a situation where it’s do or die, is something else entirely. He’s a natural footballer who plays on instinct.’
Steyn has enjoyed tremendous success at Test level, having played a key role for one of the great Boks sides that claimed the World Cup, a series victory against the British & Irish Lions and a Tri-Nations title between 2007 and 2009. In the ensuing years, however, off-field dramas and an extended absence from the Test scene have limited his growth as an international player.
When he faced the media after his comeback game against the Wallabies in Johannesburg on 20 July, Steyn admitted he had made mistakes. As he talked about his journey, he pantomimed a rollercoaster.
‘It’s no secret my career has seen some highs and lows,’ he said. ‘I guess the lesson to take from that is you have to keep trying. You will screw up. Everybody will talk about the kicks I’ve made in big games or finals, but I’ve missed more kicks than I’ve made in championship matches over the years.
‘I’ve taken some time to adjust to the structures. That’s why I didn’t want to start [against Australia]. That may sound weird, as every player wants to play every minute of every Test match, but I really felt like I needed some time to adapt to Test rugby again and that I needed to prove myself to Rassie.’
The 32-year-old’s time in France has come to an end. Steyn has bought property in Bloemfontein and his wife and two children have already settled in for the next chapter of their lives. A far as rugby is concerned, Steyn’s career may well end where it began: with the Free State Cheetahs. In the coming months, however, he should be integral to South Africa’s World Cup plans. According to the Bok coaches and players, the veteran has made a difference since linking up with the squad in early July.
‘There’s always a special vibe in the Springbok camp. This time around, however, we have guys like Frans and a few others back from overseas. Those guys bring a different dimension to the group,’ said Bok centre Jesse Kriel. ‘It’s makes for a special team environment. Those guys have raised the standard on the training field. It has got to the point where we get back to the hotel at the end of the day and tell ourselves that we’ve become better rugby players. That’s quite exciting.’
Like De Villiers, Bok backline mentor Mzwandile Stick believes Steyn has qualities that can’t be coached.
‘He’s just a special rugby player. He’s a utility back that can fit in at flyhalf, centre and fullback. You can’t put him in a box,’ said Stick. ‘We’re getting him back at an important time. He’s still looking as fresh as a 21-year-old. From my side, as a backline coach, I’m thrilled to have him here. He brings a lot of experience to the table and we’re learning a lot from one another.’
Handre Pollard, who looks likely to partner Steyn in that crucial 10-12 combination at the World Cup, echoed Stick’s sentiments. Erasmus himself feels that South Africa, after a long search in the wake of De Villiers’ retirement in 2015, may have found the answer to the No 12 question.
‘His best position is inside centre,’ said the Bok coach. ‘He’s good at 10 and fullback, but it’s at 12 where he may make the greatest impact.’
De Villiers, who featured at three World Cups and played alongside Steyn and Damian de Allende on many occasions, believes South Africa will travel to Japan with some good options at inside centre. Steyn will bring something different to the mix with his instinctive play as well as his ability to kick penalties and drop goals from inside his own half.
‘The Boks use their 12s a little differently to how the Wallabies and All Blacks use theirs,’ notes De Villiers. ‘Damian has done well for the Boks and he and Frans could add value at the World Cup. Andre Esterhuizen may give the Boks another physical option in midfield. It’s funny to think about it, but those three guys are so big they could have played in the loose forwards if they were around at the time of the 2007 World Cup.
‘It’s a massive boost to have someone in the team with Steyn’s kicking power,’ De Villiers adds. ‘When you have someone with the ability to pick up three points here and there from unlikely field positions, you have an edge. That can create momentum and scoreboard pressure and put you into a position to win big games.’
STEYN BY THE NUMBERS
19 – Age on Test debut
25 – Age when last he was a regular starter for Boks (2012)
756 – Days between his appearance against France in 2017 and his return against the Wallabies in July 2019
56 – Number of Test caps won before the 2019 season
52 – Number of Test caps won before the 2013 season
5 – Number of positions played for the Boks (flyhalf, inside centre, outside centre, wing, fullback)
STEYN’S UPS AND DOWNS
November 2006: The 19-year-old earns a Bok call-up on the back of a few Currie Cup appearances for the Sharks. He makes his Test debut on the left wing against Ireland in Dublin.
June 2007: Steyn comes off the bench to nail two important drop goals that take the Boks to a narrow win against Australia at Newlands.
October 2007: Steyn replaces the injured Jean de Villiers as the starting No 12 at the World Cup in France. He goes on to play a crucial role in the final and kicks a penalty that takes South Africa nine points clear of England.
October 2009: Playing at fullback, Steyn helps the Boks secure a monumental series victory against the British & Irish Lions as well as the Tri-Nations title. Having won every possible title with the Boks, he leaves South Africa to pursue a career with Racing Metro in France.
October 2011: Steyn has established himself as one of the best players on the planet. Everybody at the World Cup in New Zealand – including opposition players and coaches – marvels at his ability to kick long-range penalties and drop goals. Steyn’s tournament ends in disappointment, though, after he suffers a serious shoulder injury in the pool game against Samoa.
September 2012: Steyn returns to South Africa with the aim of playing a key role for Heyneke Meyer’s Boks. He stars in the series victory against England and goes on to win his 50th Test cap against Argentina. After breaking down in the Rugby Championship, however, he is not considered for the end-of-year tour.
June 2014: After a long struggle with various injuries, Steyn returns to the Bok set-up to feature against a World XV at Newlands. A week later, he walks out of the squad due to a contractual dispute with SA Rugby. Steyn takes up a two-year contract with Toshiba Brave Lupus in Japan.
August 2015: Plans to bring Steyn into the World Cup squad come to nought. At the squad announcement in Durban, Meyer reveals the decision to omit the World Cup winner was tough and he and Steyn had shed a tear over the call.
February 2016: Steyn returns to France to join former Bok coach Jake White at Montpellier. The club goes on to win the European Challenge Cup and finishes second in the 2018 Top 14.
June 2017: Steyn makes a long-awaited return to the Bok side in the home series against France. However, plans to involve him in the Rugby Championship and end-of-year tour fall through.
June 2018: Steyn is named in the Bok squad for the series against England in South Africa. A couple of days later, SA Rugby announces Steyn has been released due to an injury sustained in the Top 14 final. Unconfirmed reports emerge about SA Rugby and Montpellier failing to reach to an agreement about his release.
July 2019: The uncertainty around Steyn’s return grows as the player fails to report for Bok training leading up to the Rugby Championship. Coach Rassie Erasmus says Steyn will feature once he has addressed a few ‘logistical issues’.
July 2019: Steyn makes an impression during the latter stages of the Boks’ 35-17 win over Australia and in the 16-16 draw against New Zealand.
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