Tapping his potential

Frans Steyn has started to produce consistently good performances under Sharks coach Jake White, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Steyn isn’t getting too excited, and that’s a good sign. The Sharks and Springbok centre deflected all plaudits in the aftermath of his Man of the Match performance against the Lions, despite the fact that he converted all seven of his goal attempts and steered the Durban side to a resounding 37-23 victory.

Steyn didn’t want praise; he didn’t need praise. The media went big on the statement-making performance, although there was a stronger statement made at the post-match presentation. As well as he’d played, Steyn declared himself unsatisfied. To his mind, the performance wasn’t good enough.

For us mere mortals, there’s every reason to feel excited. Sharks director of rugby Jake White used those very words when asked about Steyn at the start of the Super Rugby season. Through some influential performances in the early rounds, Steyn has lent some substance to the claim that he will fulfil his potential in 2014.

There’s a buzz about the Sharks, and a renewed interest in a player who once drew comparisons to Dan Carter because of his outrageous raw talent. Seven years into his professional career, and Steyn is finally starting to apply that talent consistently. And it’s interesting to hear that his coaches, and even the player himself, feel he’s not yet at the peak of his powers. This is just the beginning.

The Sharks have certainly raised their standards since John Smit, in one of his first acts as the new CEO, effected sweeping changes in July 2013. White has continued to tweak the systems and philosophy since assuming his post in late 2013. His man-management strengths have come to the fore, and he’s made it clear that every player will need to raise their standards if the Sharks are going to claim that elusive Super Rugby title.

For much of his career, Steyn has been a study in wasted potential. Between 2008 and 2012 he was good enough to help the Sharks and Boks to some monumental victories, although there was always a question of whether he could be better and if the respective coaching teams were extracting the best of his abilities. The Sharks were never sure of his best position, and the fractured relationship between Steyn and then Bok coach Peter de Villiers reached its nadir when one meeting ended with the 110kg centre breaking down in tears.

Steyn has always played his best rugby for White. This was evident during Steyn’s early years at the Boks, and most recently during the early rounds of the 2014 Super Rugby competition.

Steyn has matured a great deal since returning from a three-year stint in French club rugby, but it’s been the subtle influence of White and his management team at the Sharks that has ensured this special player performs at his optimum level. The boy may now be a man, but that doesn’t mean he no longer needs direction.

White has returned to South Africa to guide the Sharks to Super Rugby glory, although whether they reach that goal or not may be less relevant than whether they develop a couple of key Bok players. If White continues to bring out the best in Pat Lambie and Steyn, the Boks are going to be that much stronger when they compete in the Rugby Championship later this year, and at the World Cup in 2015.

It hasn’t been as simple as putting an arm around Steyn and telling him he has the ability to win championships. White has put the centre to work, and part of that preparation has been a renewed focus on his goal-kicking. In Steyn, the Sharks and Boks have a weapon other teams do not. He’s already nailed some long-range goal attempts over the course of his career, but the significant difference in 2014 is he’s doing it consistently.

One of White’s greatest strengths as a coach is he’s able to identify talent, not only in terms of his players but in his backroom staff too. White first recruited visual skills expert Sherylle Calder after her success with the 2003 World Cup-winning England side, and she would go on to work with the Boks from the formative days of 2004 up to the ultimate triumph in the 2007 World Cup final.

White has brought Calder to Durban and handed her a two-year contract with the hope she can work her magic again. The results were evident in the early rounds of Super Rugby, as after working with Calder, Steyn and Lambie (both 81%) had improved their goal-kicking accuracy dramatically. The good news for the Sharks and Boks is that Calder has plans to enhance those players further before the 2015 World Cup.

Lambie has improved working with White, who encouraged   the flyhalf to stand flatter and thus pose a greater threat to the opposition defence. Calder was tasked with improving his kicking. It hasn’t exactly been a weakness over the past two years, but it certainly hasn’t been world class. Bok coach Heyneke Meyer has publicly stated that Lambie must improve his tactical and goal-kicking if he’s to be considered as a first-choice option at the highest level.

Lambie drove the Sharks to a Currie Cup title win in 2013, but neither the Sharks nor the Boks have forgotten about his early misses at goal in that decider. Before getting injured against the Bulls, he had struck the ball far better, and produced a seven-from-seven goal kicking performance in the clash against the Reds at Kings Park.

Steyn’s work with Calder has also paid off, as it was a combination of skill and vision that created a try for team-mate Odwa Ndungane in the Sharks’ opening game against the Bulls. Steyn identified the space behind the Bulls’ defence, and chipped for his wing to chase, and score. Lambie may have been the Sharks’ primary goal-kicker before getting injured, but Steyn provided them with an invaluable long-range kicking option. The pair destroyed the Reds via a flawless display, Lambie hitting the target with the rifle and Steyn proving just as accurate with the siege cannon. A week earlier, Steyn had spearheaded the big win over the Lions, and drawn a lot of attention with those booming drives for goal from deep within his own half. As Calder reveals, the player has worked hard to harness that power on the training pitch.

The Sharks have started the season well, but will need to improve if they’re to lift the trophy in early August. The same is true of Steyn, who will need to build on his early showings and prove that, like Carter, he can be a match-winner on a regular basis.

There’s reason to feel excited, but more in the sense of what’s to come. According to White and Calder, there could be a few more surprises in store as Steyn builds momentum and explores the depths of his talent. He was one of the standout players at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, and if he continues on his current course and remains fit, he may prove the difference at the 2015 global tournament in England.


‘Frans has always been a lekker oke and we got on from the moment we started working together back in 2006. He hasn’t lost that, but it’s clear to me he’s matured as a player and a person since spending that time in France. Working with Jake has been good for Frans, because Jake knows what makes him tick. He’s in great shape, and he seems to be very happy in his personal life. Sometimes that can make all the difference to a player’s performance.

‘I’ve always had a good relationship with Frans, and it’s been easy to pick up from where we left off in 2007. I was so proud of him when he nailed that long-range penalty in the World Cup final in Paris.

‘This year, we’ve revisited what worked then and added a few things. Of course, it’s not just a visual thing. Hitting the ball in the right spot is a big part of it, but you can’t place yourself under too much stress, and you certainly shouldn’t be looking to hit the ball too hard. I often tell players to think of it as if they’re a batsman in cricket. Some will try to hit the ball as hard as they can with the aim of clearing the boundary. Others will realise that with good timing, you can achieve the same result. This second method also puts less stress on the players’ bodies, and so decreases the chance of injuries.

‘We are still some way off where we should be, and it’s a work in progress. For now, the aim is consistency, to ensure that we maintain a high level of kicking. Once we’ve established that base, well, the sky’s the limit.’

– This article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Jon Cardinelli