Steyn’s French freedom

Frans Steyn talks to SA Rugby magazine about playing for Racing Metro, his relationship with Peter de Villiers, and why inside centre is his preferred position.

Bonjour, Frans. You’ve been at Racing Metro for five months. Parlez vous Français?
Do you want a serious answer or one that’s going to make me look good? The club organises two-hour French lessons every Monday and while I’m keen to learn, I’m finding it very difficult. The teacher’s English isn’t very good, so there are also a few comical moments where I battle to tell her I don’t understand what she’s saying.

What’s the extent of your vocabulary?
I know about five phrases, but I’m not getting downhearted. I’ll be over here for three years, so it will be a lonely life if I don’t manage to learn the language. The club has organised the lessons, but I’m doing it for myself. It would make my life a lot easier. For example, the French captain Lionel Nallet doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak French. When we talk, it’s all hand gestures and miming until we come to some sort of understanding. I reckon in about two years I’ll know how to speak the language.

You’re in the same team as Sébastien Chabal, who is notoriously averse to speaking English in his own country. Have you managed to win him over?
Chabal can speak English, don’t let him fool you. The other day he was telling me in colourful English how as a South African I’ve brought some hot weather [30°C] up north. He’s a tough player with a hardman persona, but in the change room and in training he’s always making jokes. As a rugby player, he’s been around for more than a decade so I can learn a lot from him.

A lot of South Africans take the gap after finishing school and travel to Europe to see a bit of the world. What countries have you managed to visit during your stay?
Paris is very central so it’s easy to hop on a train or plane if you want to visit countries like Italy or Spain. In South Africa, obviously you have to spend a lot more time and money travelling anywhere.

You’ve said before how difficult it was to go from living in Bloem to living in Durban. What’s it like living in Paris?
It’s really difficult when you don’t know the language. From taking a cab to buying food – it can be very frustrating. You ask the people if they speak English and they answer, ‘No, I don’t speak English’, which tells you that they can speak it, but they just don’t want to. It’s another reason why I have to improve my French. I’m lucky that Racing has given me this opportunity despite my inability to speak French. I know that at some clubs they make you study French for six months before they even allow you to play rugby. Jacques Cronjé [Biarritz] and Gerrie Britz [Perpignan] have told me how they first struggled in the team environment. All the instructions are in French.

Have you made many friends since moving to France? What do you guys do with your spare time?
We have former Stormers lock Francois van der Merwe here as well as the brothers Bernard and Willie le Roux, and we often get together to have a braai and chat in Afrikaans. Otherwise there are okes from Fiji and Samoa, and former Hurricanes fullback Brent Ward. Brent really took me under his wing when I first arrived and showed me a bit of the city.

What was the message from the coaching staff when you joined Racing Metro? Have they instructed you on how to play?
[Laughs] They haven’t really told me what to do! We don’t have a set game plan as such, we just play what we see. I enjoy this immensely as I get to run a lot more than I used to. The Sharks also embraced this kind of rugby, but if you were an experienced player, as I was towards the end, you had more responsibility. You weren’t given the same freedom as the younger guys. At Racing, you have that freedom to make mistakes. There isn’t that kind of pressure or responsibility.

How have you adjusted to the style of the French game? Do you feel it suits your natural abilities?
Definitely. I can’t say that playing for the Springboks or Sharks didn’t suit my strengths, but in France they want you to try new things. The crowd lives for the spectacle. If you try something outrageous and it doesn’t come off, they’ll still applaud you for trying. The supporters back you through thick and thin.

How do the French supporters in the north compare to those in the south?
When you play down south, they’ll boo you when you touch the ball or line up a shot at goal. You quickly realise they are just a very passionate bunch who, like the Racing fans, back their team to the end.

And in comparison with South African rugby supporters?
Things are very different in South Africa. Back home, if you get a bit behind on the scoreboard, your supporters tend to lose faith. In South Africa, we are much more results-driven and are more afraid to lose. In France, they aren’t afraid to lose, they just look to play exciting rugby. I remember being part of the Sharks team that lost to the Waratahs in the semi-final of the 2008 Super 14. We had an awesome team, but we were just afraid of losing. We probably could have put 30 to 40 points on the board if we had backed ourselves more. It’s difficult to compare France and South Africa, though, as rugby is much bigger in South Africa.

What were the rugby reasons for signing with Racing Metro?
I admired the tradition of the club. Racing Club de France has been around since 1882 and was one of the first rugby clubs in Europe. The stadium they played at was used to host the 1900 Olympic Games. They may not have always been competitive at the highest level, but there is a lot of tradition and I was keen to be a part of it.

There’s always plenty of confusion when it comes to foreign-based players representing the Springboks. Do you know where you stand in terms of eligibility, and has Peter de Villiers spoken to you about coming back for the 2011 World Cup?
We haven’t spoken at all. I spoke to Ruan Pienaar and Schalk Burger when they were on tour last November, and they gave me a bit of the team news. I send them all SMSs before a big Test to wish them good luck, but I never hear from the coach. I don’t expect to, considering how much talent there is in South Africa.

How do you feel about the Springboks’ foreign selection policy?
Look, I would love to play in next year’s World Cup. It’s the biggest event in our sport and nobody wants to miss out. It’s a huge honour and privilege. I believe that anyone playing for clubs around the world should be eligible to represent their country. Unfortunately, that’s not my decision, and I don’t criticise the decision that’s been made. Maybe Peter doesn’t believe I’m good enough to play for the Boks. If that is the case, I’m going to work even harder to get myself back into the team.

You’re only 22, but it feels like coaches and critics have been debating the point of your best position for a decade. Your thoughts?
When I first arrived here I played fullback for a couple of games, but since then I’ve settled in well at inside centre. It’s the first time in my career that I’ve played 10 games in a row in one position. I learnt a lot when I was playing with guys like Butch James and Percy Montgomery at the Sharks, and I’m learning a lot playing next to Andrew Mehrtens at Racing. I’m not sure how long Mehrts will be around so I’m learning as much as I can. He may not be a centre, but he still knows what’s required of a No 12 at the highest level.

Has he helped you with your kicking?
It’s very strange to see Mehrts practising his kicking. Sometimes he just slots two goal kicks at captain’s practice and that’s it for the day. He then goes on to slot all his kicks in the next match. It goes to show that different things work for different people. I can watch him and take what I can, but ultimately I have to do things my own way.

You’ve lost 7kg since joining Racing. Why did you feel you needed to slim down?
When I first got here, it rained a lot and I spent a lot of time training. Apart from that, I made a conscious decision that I wanted to become a more mobile player. Towards the end of last year I was just running straight and using my bulk to smash it up. I want to be more agile, an attribute you need in an environment like France.

What do you hope to gain from playing in the Top 14, a tournament that is of a lower standard than the Currie Cup?
The two competitions are completely different and I’m reluctant to say one is better or worse than the other. In some ways, the Top 14 is slower because of the conditions, but then it’s faster because there’s more running and less kicking. You might say the standards here are lower, but I couldn’t be training harder than I am at the moment.

Is there anything you miss about playing rugby in South Africa?
I miss my friends – guys like Ruan and Johann Muller, who were in the team when I first started at the Sharks. I suppose I miss the weather too.

Do you feel the move to France was necessary, not just in terms of broadening horizons and sharpening your skills, but also necessary in order to escape the limelight in South Africa for a while?
At the end of last year, I was 22 and had played for the Boks and Sharks since 2006. I never want to get used to something or get bored of something I love. I just needed something different, and I decided I wanted to make the move now instead of when I’m older. I do miss playing for the Boks. I still want to play for them, but I want to be able to enjoy the experience of playing in France and the off-field challenges. As far as the limelight is concerned, I’ve always enjoyed being approached on the street by fans. At the same time, I’ve also enjoyed being a relative unknown in France when I walk down the road to the shop.

Do you miss the pressure of playing international rugby week in, week out?
Racing are the underdogs so there’s never any pressure. I miss the pressure of playing against the best, and also the pressure of being part of a big team like the Boks.

Schalk Brits told SA Rugby magazine recently that young South African players should go to Europe sooner rather than later. Do you agree?
I’m a bit of a screw-up. I’m a different case, so I don’t know if I should be giving advice! It’s even a risk when you’re 29 or 30 to come over here, because by then you’re likely to be married with kids. What if your family struggles to settle? The great thing for me is that I don’t have to worry about those kinds of responsibilities, I can just focus on my rugby and enjoy myself. If I wanted to go play rugby in Iceland, there’d be no pressure to stay. For me, it’s great to have that kind of freedom.

Have you given any thought to your career in the long term? Any ambitions of representing the Springboks in 100 Tests?
I want to play rugby for the Springboks until I can’t walk anymore, like Os du Randt. I have my eye on 50, but maybe my Bok days are over, hey [laughs]. I don’t know about 100. I want to play for my country as long as possible, but I’d never want to be in a situation where the coach was just pushing me through my last 10 Tests to reach 100. In three years I will have completed my contract, and then I will decide what I’m going to do. Hopefully by then, South Africa and the rest of the world will have a different view on players playing outside their country. Ultimately, I believe that if you’re good enough, you should be picked. I know Jean de Villiers is loving it at Munster, and he’ll be a better player for it. If we’re good enough, why shouldn’t we be picked? We haven’t gone overseas because we are disloyal to South Africa. Rugby is my only job and it could end tomorrow. You need to make rational decisions in any job and in some instances that means moving out of your comfort zone. That’s what I did and it was definitely the right decision.

By Jon Cardinelli

– This article first appeared in the March issue of SA Rugby magazine. Click here to subscribe