In 2016, Morne Steyn’s recall to the Boks and last performance against the All Blacks were widely ridiculed. The fact his inclusion in the latest Bok squad has been warmly welcomed represents a remarkable comeback, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
As one of the journalists covering the Springboks’ home leg of the Rugby Championship during a troubled 2016 season, I vividly remember sitting in the Kings Park press box as the hosts were hammered 57-15 by the All Blacks.
For many infuriated fans in search of a scapegoat to blame for the Boks’ woes, Steyn was an easy target.
Ironically, just the week before, Steyn had kicked all 18 points to guide the Springboks to a hard-fought 18-10 win over the Wallabies in Perth, nailing two drop goals and four penalties.
Yet, in a match that completely lacked any aesthetic appeal and largely relied on the kicking boot of then 32-year-old Steyn, many felt it was another step backwards for coach Allister Coetzee to be turning to the stalwart and jettisoning engimatic Elton Jantjies from the No 10 jersey.
And so, when the Boks plummeted to a heavy defeat in the 2016 Rugby Championship finale, many critics gleefully wrote off Steyn.
In particular, the second half of that clash with New Zealand had been eminently forgettable for the flyhalf general, who uncharacteristically became involved in a scuffle with Joe Moody before also diving into a ruck with a swinging arm.
He later missed a crucial tackle that led to a try, kicked the halfway restart into the All Blacks in-goal, lost his radar on the direction of his out-of-hand kicks and was ultimately subbed in the 63rd minute.
Steyn has not featured for the Boks since.
Coetzee opted to leave him out of the 2016 end-of-year tour as Jantjies, Pat Lambie and Johan Goosen were preferred as the options at 10, with Steyn instead returning to French club Stade Francais.
In the years to follow, the 66-Test-cap Springbok often had to actually remind people that he had in fact not been taking himself out of the Springbok equation, and was still available for international duty should the need ever arise.
He was the forgotten man of Springbok rugby, and even when Bulls coach Jake White made the bold call of recruiting Steyn (now on the ‘wrong side’ of 35) back to the Bulls in 2019, many felt it was a regressive step once again.
Yet, from his time coaching overseas, White had seen what Steyn was still capable of achieving, and had witnessed first-hand just how well conditioned he was, while also remaining a consummate professional in managing a game from the flyhalf position.
His return to the Bulls coincided with a stunning reversal of fortunes for the Pretoria-based side, and the ever-consistent Steyn has been an integral cog in the well-oiled Loftus machine.
In a recent interview, though, even Steyn suggested his return to the Bulls was concluded with an expectation of only completing a domestic swansong.
‘When I rejoined the Bulls, I thought it would be a good way to end my career and have a bit of fun,’ Steyn commented. ‘I obviously wasn’t thinking about the Boks at that stage.’
Yet, as an inordinate number of local matches have followed one after the other, Steyn has continued to perform at the highest standards, while emerging as the most consistent flyhalf in South Africa.
And with an injury to Handre Pollard, which would have led the Bok coaches to closely examine the most reliable backup options at flyhalf, Steyn’s national stocks suddenly rocketed.
Pollard has since recovered from injury, and will don the Springbok No 10 jersey barring any further misfortune. Elton Jantjies will surely still be regarded as the second in line, but Steyn won’t be far away.
Yet, even if Steyn – now just over a month away from his 37th birthday – were to feature in the warm-up matches against Georgia or for SA A against the British & Irish Lions, it would conclude a sensational Springbok comeback.
There are few players more deserving of this fairytale return, but just the fact no one really batted an eyelid at his inclusion in the Springbok squad speaks volumes about his unequivocally assured form.
And, in an emergency situation, would anyone bet against him rising to the occasion if he had to don a Bok jersey in a Test against the Lions? Almost unbelievably, particularly in the context of that 2016 performance against the All Blacks, you’d suspect not.
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