Morné Steyn wants the Springbok No 10 jersey back, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Morné Steyn was 10 years old when the Springboks won the 1995 World Cup. While he and his mates celebrated with the rest of South Africa when Joel Stransky kicked that famous drop goal in the final, Steyn was too young to understand exactly how that win had been achieved.
It was only as he matured as a person and as a rugby player that he began to appreciate the magnitude of that victory. On that fateful day in 1995, the Boks fired as one to overpower a vaunted All Blacks team. That said, there is no denying that the accuracy of one individual – the flyhalf and goal-kicker – was the difference between victory and defeat. So it was in 1995, and so it has been in every World Cup tournament since.
On 24 June 2015, the 1995 final was rebroadcast as part of the 20th anniversary of that World Cup triumph. Shortly after the ‘final whistle’, I caught up with Steyn to chat about the significance of that victory, and the chances of history repeating itself in 2015. The conversation turned to the contribution of Stransky, and just how important the role of a goal-kicker is at a World Cup.
‘Every rugby player dreams of playing in a World Cup, but for a kicker, the dream is a little different,’ says Steyn.
‘He’s going to be thinking about that moment where he will have the opportunity to win the World Cup for his team, just like Joel did in 1995. Hopefully, I can do something similar for the Boks later this year.’
Steyn is expected to travel with South Africa to the global tournament in England this September. Bok coach Heyneke Meyer will take three flyhalves to the World Cup, and perhaps the only thing that is not decided at this point is who he will back to start.
Handré Pollard is a rare talent, but is still young, inexperienced, and, on the evidence of last year’s performances against Argentina and Ireland, not suited to wet conditions at this stage of his career. Pat Lambie has been solid for the Boks in recent seasons, and yet there are still questions around his ability to take charge and control a match.
If Steyn were to start ahead of Pollard and Lambie at the World Cup, it would mark an incredible comeback after what transpired in 2014. Steyn began last season as the preferred No 10, but by the end of the Rugby Championship, he was left out of the match 23. Meyer explained that while he still rated Steyn as a match-winner, he wanted to explore the potential of Pollard and Lambie sooner rather than later.
Steyn didn’t receive a minute of game time on the Boks’ end-of-year tour to Europe. When he returned to his club in France, he was restricted to a bench role while Test star Jules Plisson held a monopoly on the Stade Français No 10 jersey. Life off the pitch wasn’t much better, as Steyn and his family battled to mix with the locals and adjust to the French culture. Some players may have viewed this as a sign that the dream was over. Steyn, however, refused to admit defeat.
‘I understood what Heyneke was doing when he gave Handré and Pat more of a chance at the Boks, but it was still very tough to be left out of the 23,’ he remembers. ‘But you know what, [when you’re dropped] that does force you to take a look at yourself. You are never too old to learn something. I went back and looked at my game, and got to work in some key areas.
‘Since 2009, I’ve never really felt this kind of competition for the Bok No 10 jersey,’ he continues. ‘Back then, it was mainly myself and Ruan Pienaar who were competing for that position, and even then, Ruan was often used at No 9. More recently, the competition for the position has forced me to push harder and improve.’
Of course, Steyn still needed an opportunity to show he had improved, and it arrived when Plisson succumbed to a serious shoulder injury at the back end of the European season. Steyn assumed the No 10 duties, and started to find that old rhythm. His game management earned him plenty of plaudits in the French rugby community, as did his nerveless goal-kicking.
He racked up 28 points in the Top 14 qualifying play-off against Racing Metro, and then 18 in the semi-final against the 2013-14 champions Toulon. While Steyn’s performance wasn’t flawless in the final, he did score all 12 of Stade Français’ points, and guided them to a long-awaited domestic title.
‘When I played five or six games in a row, I started to find form and confidence,’ he says. ‘I was really hitting the ball sweetly in the play-offs. It’s great to be taking that sort of confidence into the Test season.’
It was a significant performance for the Parisian club, and for the Boks in the lead-up to the World Cup. Meyer believes the elite South African players who excel for their clubs in Europe can be an asset to the Boks at the 2015 World Cup in England. Steyn himself feels the time in France has prepared him for the upcoming global tournament.
‘The conditions in Europe are not to be underestimated,’ he says. ‘It’s a very different game up there, with the rain and the soft fields. It’s not like Loftus Versfeld or Ellis Park – you can’t throw the ball around, so you have to adjust.
‘What also needs to be taken into account is that there aren’t many tries scored during the latter stages of a World Cup. It requires a different game plan, and the bulk of the points tend to be scored by the kickers. That’s just the way it works.’
Steyn’s recent form for Stade Français confirms he is back to his match-winning best. His Test record tells the tale of a goal-kicker with liquid nitrogen running through his veins. In terms of a goal-kicker, the Boks don’t have a better option for this World Cup than Morné Steyn.
‘I’m not the type of guy who gets emotional in those situations,’ he says of his approach in the games where so much is at stake. ‘I shut the crowd and all the external factors out. The only pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself. One kick can be the difference between winning and losing a game, and I want to win the game for the team. That’s why I’m really looking to up my game this season, and achieve a goal-kicking success rate of 90%.
‘This is the last World Cup I can go to, and I want that No 10 jersey,’ Steyn adds. ‘I want to be the guy who steers the Boks into the play-offs, and then makes the big plays in the semi-final and final. I want to be the guy who takes South Africa to glory.’
– This article first appeared in the August 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine