Frans Steyn will face one of the biggest challenges of his short career over the next three weeks.
With Ruan Pienaar expected to be sidelined for that period having damaged knee ligaments in their match against the Reds, Steyn is the most likely candidate to fill the void at flyhalf.
Steyn was ordinary at pivot in Brisbane when Pienaar was substituted, but it would be unfair to expect him to excel in a position he hasn’t played in consistently since 2006. However, he will have to front in Pienaar’s absence if the Sharks’ title challenge is not to falter.
His task will be an arduous one, with the unpredictable Force laying in wait on Saturday, followed by matches against the Brumbies and Hurricanes in the fortnight that follows.
Of course it would be an exaggeration to suggest that their fortunes will hinge entirely on the 21-year-old. The pack must improve on the limp performance they produced against the Reds, thereby establishing the type of platform they set for Pienaar over the first four rounds.
There’ll also be an onus on scrumhalf Rory Kockott to lift his game further and take some of the pressure off Steyn, particularly from a tactical kicking perspective. Former Springbok coach Jake White consistently praised this facet of Fourie du Preez’s play, and has been quoted extensively saying that his kicking game eased the pressure on his flyhalf significantly.
Du Preez is the standard Kockott will measure himself by and if he hopes, as he should, to unseat the Bulls No 9 in the Springbok side in future, it’s an area of his game that needs to improve.
The other conundrum coach John Plumtree will have to negotiate is who he pairs with Steyn at 12. Adi Jacobs has played there in the past but is settled at outside centre and Plumtree would be reluctant to shift him a channel inside. One option is to bring Riaan Swanepoel into the run-on side at inside centre, but his inexperience at Super Rugby level should be of concern.
Springbok Waylon Murray has made good progress after a lengthy injury lay-off and reports from Australia suggest he could be considered for the final match of the tour. If he comes into the starting 15 it is likely that he will be restored to his preferred position of outside centre, with Jacobs on his inside.
Pienaar’s loss comes just as he was starting to find his groove at flyhalf and as his partnership with Steyn was beginning to flourish. However, to lament this now is a futile exercise.
Steyn needs to prove why he feels flyhalf is his strongest position and the team and coaching staff have to give him the support he needs to succeed.
Steyn’s success or failure at flyhalf will not be the sole determinant of success or failure for the Sharks. But he will be crucial either way. Plumtree and co will hope it’s the former because the next three weeks will shape their title charge.
By Ryan Vrede