Cipriani’s struggles highlight Steyn’s value

Danny Cipriani’s failure to front against the world’s elite rugby nations should deepen South Africans’ appreciation of Frans Steyn’s talent.

Cipriani was last week described as “one of the finest players of his generation” by The Times of London. The paper made comparisons between Cipriani and the world’s premier flyhalf Dan Carter. Injured England pivot Jonny Wilkinson, writing in his weekly Times column, said the 21-year-old was streaks ahead of him in terms of his development after just five Tests, and expressed confidence in him being able to control a Test against the best teams in the world.

Cipriani failed to live up to any of the hype against the Springboks, disappearing in a maze of mediocrity, and costing his team seven points when Ruan Pienaar charged down an attempted clearance. Following that Test former Australia coach Eddie Jones reiterated his belief that Cipriani offered nothing to suggest he was an international quality flyhalf, and questioned the faith the England management, media and public had in the Wasps man.

There’s unfounded hype and hype with substance. Cipriani slots comfortably into the former category. He is undeniably talented, and in the future perhaps he’ll develop into a quality pivot. But certainly not a world-class one. The Springboks’ very own 21-year-old Frans Steyn is hype with substance.

He dominated the Currie Cup in his rookie season, scored a try on Test debut and looked comfortable on his first Springbok tour in 2006. He followed that with impressive performances for the Sharks in the 2007 Super 14 against some of the world’s elite players and shone at the World Cup in a position (inside centre) unfamiliar to him.

Steyn is not without his flaws – there are many – but he has shown immense promise and has provided tangible evidence to suggest that he could progress to be a dominant force in world rugby in future. Cipriani, for all the column inches dedicated to him in the English press, seems to be more prolific off the pitch than on it.

Cipriani has been mildly impressive in the Premiership and European Cup, but the quality of those competitions is questionable. The southern hemisphere teams, even when they’ve played poorly, have negotiated the best the northern hemisphere has to offer on their year-end tour matches. They are superior players, playing in tournaments of superior quality. The measure of any player is his ability to front in those tournaments and in the World Cup, where pressure is at its peak. Steyn has achieved both.

If Cipriani is the future of English rugby, that future looks bleak indeed. South Africans should take heart from the fact that in time Steyn’s rough edges will be smoothed and he’ll touch the ceiling of his potential. The English are secretly unsure whether Cipriani will reach that level.

Steyn has been much maligned by the South African press and public. But his value becomes apparent when viewed in the context of Cipriani’s struggles. No other nation possesses a 21-year-old of Steyn’s calibre. For that we should celebrate.

By Ryan Vrede