A player of Frans Steyn’s experience and match-winning ability should be starting for the Springboks rather than riding the bench, writes JON CARDINELLI in Durban.
Last week, Allister Coetzee made good on his promise to select a completely South Africa-based starting XV. Quite a few eyebrows were raised when more seasoned and accomplished individuals such as Steyn and Francois Hougaard, who play their club rugby in Europe, were picked on the bench.
Yet Coetzee insisted on backing local players who had attended the recent training camps in South Africa. The Bok coach felt that Ross Cronjé’s halfback partnership with Elton Jantjies at the Lions, as well as Jan Serfontein’s partnership with Jesse Kriel at the Bulls, would best serve the team for the first Test of the season.
It was a big call. Fortunately, it did not cost the Boks too dearly against a weakened and disjointed France side at Loftus Versfeld.
After Kriel was sidelined with concussion, Steyn came off the bench to win his first Test cap in nearly five years. The 2007 World Cup winner made an immediate impact on attack and with the tactical boot, and appeared to work well with Serfontein in midfield.
Now that Kriel has been ruled out of the second Test at Kings Park, one would expect logic to prevail. The combination that should have started the first game of the season – namely Steyn and Serfontein – should be backed in a potential series-decider.
Coetzee appeared to be in awe as he ran through the list of Steyn’s unique strengths and attributes at a press conference on Monday. The two men first worked together in the 2006 and 2007 seasons when Coetzee was the Bok backline coach and Steyn was a raw, yet undeniably talented rookie. A decade later, and it’s clear that Coetzee still rates the player as one of the best in the business.
The sentiment has been echoed by several other members of the management over the past few days. ‘This guy can kick!’ defence coach Brendan Venter gushed as he chatted to journalists after a training session at Northwood High School on Monday. At that stage of the session, a few of the Bok backs were out on the field practising their kicking.
Later still, after the majority of the players had retreated into the shade and tossed their boots aside, Steyn continued to work with some of the newer members of the Bok squad. At one point, fullback Andries Coetzee was launching spiraling up-an-unders.
‘Just like André Joubert,’ Steyn told Coetzee, who won his first Test cap against France this past Saturday. Steyn, of course, knows a thing or two about playing fullback at Test level, having started in that position when the Boks beat the British & Irish Lions and then when they won the Tri-Nations in 2009.
On Tuesday, Bok attack coach Franco Smith spoke highly of the player’s character and abilities.
‘I remember working with him when I was a young coach at Free State and he was still at school [at Grey College in Bloemfontein]. His influence in this team has been enormous,’ Smith said of Steyn’s recent contributions.
‘His attitude has been terrific, and it’s clear that he’s proud to be involved with the Boks. Frans has a great knowledge of how they play over there in France, and of their individual players. He’s been great at sharing that information with our coaches and players.’
The big question is why a player of Steyn’s accomplishments, ability and experience would start from the bench in such an important clash at Kings Park. A win on Saturday would clinch the series for the hosts, and alleviate some of the pressure on the head coach, who presided over eight defeats in 2016.
Coetzee’s press conference explanations on the subject have made little sense. While Steyn and Serfontein finished the first Test together, Coetzee is suddenly reluctant to back the pair as a combination, and to back Serfontein at No 13. The Bulls player excelled in that outside centre role for the Boks in 2014, and was at No 13 when South Africa beat New Zealand at Ellis Park.
Coetzee has praised Serfontein for his contributions at No 12 this past Saturday. The Bok coach believes that the 10-12 combination of Elton Jantjies and Serfontein is worth investing in. He said that Jantjies benefited from having an experienced player in Serfontein (27 Test caps) on his inside.
And yet surely Jantjies would benefit a lot more from playing alongside Steyn, who has twice as many caps as Serfontein (54). A largely inexperienced Bok backline would benefit from such a selection, as would a team that is short of world-class tactical kickers.
Venter was in awe of Steyn’s kicking display at the training session on Monday. How many times has Steyn stepped up to sink long-range drop goals and penalties for the Boks? Indeed, at the 2011 World Cup, opposition teams feared Steyn’s, and thus South Africa’s, ability to score points against them from within his own half.
It’s hard to believe that Steyn is set to ride the bench for a second consecutive Test. Coetzee has confirmed that Lionel Mapoe is the favourite to replace Kriel.
Coetzee has said that Mapoe is a specialist No 13, and that he wants to trade like for like. Apparently he has already forgotten that Mapoe only came into the senior squad after Lukhanyo Am was ruled out of the series with a cheekbone fracture.
There’s been a buzz about this Bok team in recent weeks. The win at Loftus has lifted the mood to new heights. The team should not be short of confidence and enthusiasm at Kings Park this Saturday.
However, the fact remains that the starting side lacks experience and – apart from one or two exceptions – world-class players. Steyn is fit and, by the accounts of several Bok coaches, in a great mental space, so where is the sense in playing him from the bench?
Selecting Steyn at No 12 is the right call in the context of this series. It’s also the right call in the long-term, as Steyn would be an asset to the Boks at the 2019 World Cup.
Photo: Steve Haag Sports