After famously kicking the series-winning penalty against the Lions in 2009, stalwart Morne Steyn has earned a remarkable Springbok recall, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Big series and tournaments tend to be decided by a single play or moment. The Springboks became world champions for the first time when Joel Stransky slotted a drop goal in extra time of the 1995 World Cup final. Jonny Wilkinson emulated Stransky when he nailed a late winner for England against Australia in the 2003 decider.
Six years later, a rookie by the name of Morne Steyn came off the bench to kick the Springboks to glory in a series against the British & Irish Lions that would alter the course of South African rugby history.
Fourie du Preez was taken out in the air by Ronan O’Gara on South Africa’s 10m line. Before captain John Smit had time to think about who should take a potentially series-winning kick for goal, Steyn had the tee in his hands.
As Du Preez recalls, most of the Boks – including Smit – felt Frans Steyn was the right man for the job. It said something for Morne Steyn’s character, however, that he was up for the challenge.
“I got up after O’Gara took me out and I immediately knew it was a penalty,” Du Preez remembers. “I started to look around for Frans Steyn, who usually takes those long-range goal kicks. But it was Morne, playing in only his second Test, who was confident enough to step forward and say, ‘I will knock it over’.
“I’d watched him do it so many times before for the Bulls – and so many times at Loftus Versfeld. But did I know for sure that he would kick it over in that situation? No, I didn’t.
“Test rugby is very different to Super Rugby and the pressure is immense. Add to that the fact the kick would decide the game and the series. If we missed that kick, the game would have been a draw and the series would have been decided in the third Test.
“So I stood there, watching Morne approach the tee. As the ball left his boot, I hoped and hoped it would have the distance. When it sailed between the posts, we all celebrated like we had won the World Cup all over again. It was very special.”
Since booting that series-clinching penalty against the Lions in 2009, Steyn has gone on to enjoy many more title successes with the Boks, Bulls and Stade Francais.
His story took an unexpected turn when he returned to a rebuilding Bulls franchise in late 2019. With Steyn back in the No 10 jersey, the Bulls dominated all domestic tournaments across the 2020/2021 season and ended a decade-long title drought.
All things considered, Steyn’s return to the Bok set-up should come as no surprise. The veteran flyhalf is back in the squad, and should have the chance to face the Lions for the second time in his career.
In a sense, it would be Steyn’s second comeback after a brief stint with the Boks in 2016. After the 2015 World Cup, he felt that his Test career was over. He was recalled, however, after the Boks lost a couple of players to serious injuries.
The Boks were soundly beaten by the Wallabies and the All Blacks in Australasia during the 2016 Rugby Championship. Coach Allister Coetzee went into the home leg of the Rugby Championship desperate for any sort of win.
Steyn was parachuted into the squad and rushed straight back into the starting side. At the time, Coetzee explained that Steyn – arguably the most accurate goal-kicker of his generation – represented the Boks’ best chance of victory against the Wallabies at Loftus.
The Boks produced yet another insipid collective performance, but the decision to back Steyn paid dividends. The veteran kicked four penalties and two drop goals to steer the team to an important 18-10 win.
The Boks were humbled the following week, suffering a 57-15 loss to New Zealand in Durban. That match against the All Blacks on 8 October 2016 was widely viewed as Steyn’s last in the green and gold. Until now.
Steyn is excited about the prospect of adding to his 66 Test caps. Facing the Lions for the second time would be a dream come true.
“When I rejoined the Bulls in 2020, I thought it would be a good way to end my career and have a bit of fun,” Steyn says. “I obviously wasn’t thinking about the Boks at that stage. One thing has led to another, with the Bulls gaining momentum and winning two titles [Super Rugby Unlocked and the Currie Cup]. Now I’m back in the Bok mix.
“It would be amazing to face the Lions again. Not many players get that chance.”
Steyn is now 37-year-old. Some have questioned whether he can really be expected to deliver at the required level of intensity?
Heyneke Meyer, who coached Steyn at the Bulls, Boks and Stade Francais believes that the player’s age shouldn’t factor into the debate.
‘He reminds me of Jonny Wilkinson in terms of his attitude and work ethic – and like Wilkinson he’s had a long and successful career,’ Meyer says.
‘In all the years I have coached him, he’s probably missed four or five training sessions. He has never really had a serious injury. That’s incredible given the nature of a collision sport like rugby.
‘Fitness is a big measurement, and Morne is still right up there. He’s simply a freak of nature. Age is not part of this equation.’
Some players let themselves go when playing abroad, especially in France where conditioning standards aren’t always a priority. Steyn is an individual who prefers to set his own fitness goals.
‘I’ve always made a point of looking after my body,’ he says. ‘Stretching is so important. I’m not a gym or weights freak. I place an emphasis on flexibility and mobility.
‘Other than that, I must have had a few angels watching over me for the past 20 years, because I’ve never had a bad injury. Hopefully that will continue.’
Meyer puts South Africa’s flyhalf debate into perspective. As was the case at the 2019 World Cup, the group will need more than 15 or even 23 players to realise their goal over a series of three Tests.
‘I would pick Handre Pollard ahead of him – and I did that at the 2015 World Cup,’ Meyers offers. ‘That said, I wouldn’t mind having Morne on the bench for the coming series against the Lions. His goal-kicking and experience would be an asset, and he can cover centre as well as fullback.
‘Morne is known for his tactical kicking and goal-kicking. I really believe his attacking game is underrated, though, if you look at how he has been putting Bulls players through gaps over the past few months. His cross-kicking to the wings has been exceptional this season. That’s given the Bulls yet another big attacking weapon.
‘If Pollard was injured, I wouldn’t hesitate to back Morne to start. He’s shown this season that he’s still good enough – and nobody handles the pressure better.’