Frans Steyn has a rare opportunity to reinvent the manner in which his Springbok career will be remembered, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
For a few moments during Saturday’s Test against France, Steyn’s return to the national fold almost went unnoticed as he slipped on to the park, while Jesse Kriel was helped off after suffering a concussion.
Then came a few booming clearance kicks, and suddenly we were reminded of the fact that it has been nearly five years since Steyn last turned out for the Boks. It’s quite remarkable really when you consider the length of time that one of the most influential players in world rugby has been absent from the national fold.
Of course, there have already been the widely publicised reports of the fact that Steyn was at odds with former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers, while a public spat with the national body over image rights saw him walk out of the Bok camp in 2014.
Right from the start of his career, Steyn established himself as one of those rare, precocious talents, capable of unbelievable strokes of genius. And at the tender age of 19, Steyn duly took South African rugby by storm as a fresh-faced youngster off the Grey Bloem Springbok production line.
Yet, as with any meteoric rise to fame for a teenager, there were certain pressures and expectations that weren’t always easy to handle. Don’t forget that Steyn is ultimately a farm boy at heart, and one who has never taken fondly to the limelight.
However, fame and fortune was thrust his way after featuring in the Super Rugby final in 2007, while winning a Currie Cup, British & Irish Lions series, Tri-Nations trophy and a World Cup, all by the age of 21.
And so when he left for France to play for Racing at the age of only 22, many South African rugby fans reacted with at anger over his decision to ply his trade overseas.
For Steyn, though, it provided an opportunity for him to grow as a person and player, away from the public spotlight, as he revealed in an interview with SA Rugby magazine upon his return to the Sharks in 2012.
‘The constant attention at home probably helped give me an inflated opinion of myself,’ he said upon reflection of the early years in his career. ‘Being in Paris on my own for the most part gave me room to breathe, to find myself.
‘Ja, it’s fair to say when I was younger I had become big-headed … freakin’ hell, I’d won the World Cup in my second season as a pro, as a 20-year-old. Two years later I’d won everything I could with the Springboks. I was fussed over throughout my schoolboy career, then I played for the Boks after only a couple of Currie Cup games – it happened so quickly that I probably got swept away by it all.’
It never turned out to be a fairytale return for Steyn, as various factors continued to keep him out of the Springbok frame. However, in 2014 he did play some of his best rugby for the Sharks.
The man at the helm of the Durban-based franchise at that time was Jake White. For whatever faults he may have – player discontentment eventually led to White’s unceremonious exit after that Super Rugby season – he did have a way to bring out the best in a player such as Steyn.
During numerous conversations I had with White during that season, he explained that Steyn was one of those characters and players who had to be managed differently. In short, some players require discipline, encouragement, direction, intensive training; and others don’t. Some are simply mavericks with touches of genius.
During that 2014 season, I also experienced Steyn’s somewhat different outlook and perspective on matters both on and off the field. Having played a key role in the Sharks’ first-ever win over the Crusaders in Christchurch, Steyn slipped out of the post-match changeroom as his teammates celebrated and mingled with some of the Crusaders' players.
As we chatted, Steyn came across as softly-spoken, eminently humble and quite happy to be away from the manic post-match hub-bub. You wouldn’t have imagined that he’d just played a leading role in a historic Super Rugby victory.
Not long after that 2014 season, Steyn made his return to France to play under White at Montpellier, while also having a couple of stints in Japan. But now he is back.
So who is the real Frans Steyn? For one, it speaks volumes that he has ended his Springbok hiatus and expressed his commitment to once again contribute in whatever way he can to the national cause.
At 30 years old, Steyn certainly still has a good few years left in him as a professional rugby player. The real question now is whether Allister Coetzee and the Springbok management team have the ability to press the right buttons to bring the best out of the mercurial utility back.
And ultimately, the answer to that question could be career-defining.
Photo: Kim Ludbrook/EPA/BackpagePix