Winning combination

Frans Steyn is once again excelling under the guidance of Jake White, writes MARK KEOHANE.

It bemuses Jake White more than anything else when he gets asked what his magic formula is in getting the best out of Frans Steyn.

White picked Steyn to be a Springbok a year after he finished school and the player responded with a Man of the Match performance on the wing against Ireland in Dublin. Subsequently there have been many more of those imposing Man of the Match situations at the Springboks, at the Sharks and now at Montpellier.

White’s chuckle screams irony more than amusement at the question of Steyn.

‘Who should need a magic formula when it comes to a player of Frans’s talent?’ asks White. ‘I recognised his skills when he was a schoolboy at Grey College. The Boks were in a training camp in Bloemfontein in 2004 and we went to watch Grey play. Frans was sensational and I made no secret about my belief that he would be good enough to be playing Test rugby in 24 months. I told several of the senior players and my assistant coaches that he was good enough to go to the World Cup in 2007.’

Steyn did go to the World Cup in 2007 and was influential in the success of the campaign. He replaced the injured Jean de Villiers as the first-choice inside centre and excelled. He also kicked a significant long-range penalty in the 15-6 win against England in the final.

‘He was 20 years old and he played like he had been a Test player for 20 years,’ says White. ‘He’s a special player; a rare talent. There aren’t many of those X-factor players who can walk from a school field into the Test arena and immediately be equally at home and as influential. New Zealand’s Dan Carter is one. South Africa’s Frans Steyn is another.’

White’s view is that he’d pick Steyn every week because of his qualities as a rugby player and for him it’s a mystery that his successors as Bok coaches could not see the value of Steyn.

‘He can play fullback, wing, centre and flyhalf – and he plays them better than most in the world. He is a better rugby player now than when he won the World Cup in 2007 – and that’s because he’s travelled, matured, got married and played in Japan and France. He’s been taken out of his comfort zone, in terms of living environment, and he’s always responded brilliantly. He understands his body more and he understands the game even better because of the wisdom that comes with experience.

‘He has a presence whenever he plays and he commands the attention of the opposition. When he first went to Racing 92 they won an unprecedented 11 matches in a row. He was a big part of that. He was a big part of the Super Rugby league-stage success the year I coached the Sharks, he flourished in Japan and his arrival at Montpellier coincided with a 10-match winning sequence. There is no coincidence there.

‘The only difference between the Frans Steyn I first picked and the Frans Steyn who has been superb for Montpellier is one was a schoolboy starring in a man’s world and now one is a man playing a leading role in a man’s world.

‘I have always been amazed at how many critics he’s had. He hardly missed a game for me when I was Bok, Sharks and Montpellier coach. He always wants to play and he always produces commanding performances. I know he has a knee problem and I manage that in the week. He isn’t the type of player who needs to prove anything to me or his teammates at training – and be flogged unnecessarily. I respect that he will always front up on match day – and that’s the only day it counts.

‘He is an adult and I treat him with the necessary respect, and he has always shown me a similar respect. His teammates also get the value of his professionalism because whenever he has been in an environment where I have been the coach, there have never been mind games or a power struggle. I saw this brilliant schoolboy playing for Grey College and I wanted him to play for any team I coached. With the exception of the Brumbies, I have always managed to call on his talent.’

At the time of writing, Montpellier were second on the French Top 14 log and had won their first European title (the Challenge Cup). Steyn, primarily wearing No 12, had been integral to that. So too fellow South Africans Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis and Pierre Spies.

‘When you add an international quartet like that to any club side you expect results. They’ve blended brilliantly and they’ve led through work ethic and their experience of a decade of Super Rugby when it was still the toughest competition in the world.

‘Pierre and Frans also benefited massively from playing in Japan because it gave their bodies a reprieve from the demands of being a Test player from a young age. They played less games, lost a lot of weight to accommodate the fast-paced nature of the Japanese league and certainly got back the appetite for professional rugby. Both have been outstanding since arriving at Montpellier.’

White’s Montpellier have been dubbed the MontBoks after the addition of Steyn, Spies and the Du Plessis brothers took his match-day squad South African total to nine in 23. But he dismisses the notion that Montpellier are versed in the playing principles of traditional South African rugby.

‘We have French and Australian players and a sprinkling of other nationalities. I’d like to think of us as a very good rugby team. It has made my job easier having a core of South African players, but success is not in a nationality or a cultural history,’ he says. ‘Every team I have coached has enjoyed success and mostly I’ve inherited teams who were mid-table or struggling, be it at school, club, provincial or Test levels.

‘There is no quick fix or magic wand. It’s a case of identifying the strengths of the players, instilling a style that complements those strengths, ensuring they are fit and conditioned and that every player has a respect for the importance of the basics of every facet of play. If you do those things right, you will win more than you lose and once players have a winning habit it becomes a lot easier to add the attacking bells and whistles to a performance.

‘But no team can have success, especially in a season that demands close to 40 matches of the squad, if there isn’t commitment, desire and work ethic, and the greatest asset any team gets with South African players is that work ethic.’

– This article first appeared in the June 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine