Morne’s mediocrity fuels flyhalf debate

JON CARDINELLI says that a question mark over Morne Steyn’s goal-kicking means a question mark over his value at the 2011 World Cup.

After maintaining an unbeaten record at Loftus for two years, the Bulls are in a position where they’ve suffered back-to-back defeats. While it is too early to write them off as play-off contenders, the reputation of the team, and indeed several Springboks, has been significantly dented.

The forwards have been disappointing, and this has in turn limited the opportunities of the back division. But to highlight Morne Steyn’s shortcomings, you need to look at his performances in 2010 and 2011. For both the Boks and the Bulls, the flyhalf has offered little variation and innovation on attack, and while he rarely misses a tackle, he concedes a lot of ground on defence.

The top point-scorer in the 2010 Super 14, Steyn carried his goal-kicking form through to the Test stage. Unfortunately, it was his only redeeming contribution. He kicked 42 consecutive goals, but could not inspire the Boks to anything better than a 1 from 6 Tri-Nations record.

2011 has witnessed a more complete letdown. Steyn has averaged just 68% in front of goal and missed a total of eight goal-attempts. His most inaccurate showing was in the high-profile derby against the Stormers, where he missed three from six. If he had nailed some of those high pressure kicks, the Bulls may have sneaked a win.

Because of his reputation as a match-winning goal-kicker, a large proportion of the South African rugby community, Springbok management included, are willing to overlook his limitations in other areas of his game. But if he no longer boasts the goal-kicking accuracy of a match-winner, then what good is he to a side that hopes to win the World Cup?

Peter de Villiers backed Butch James in the early days of his tenure, and when it became evident that James had no intention of leaving English club Bath, he tried to convert Ruan Pienaar into a flyhalf. The move enjoyed some success, although there was a concern regarding Pienaar’s goal-kicking.

When Pienaar missed a few kicks in the opening Test of the 2009 Tri-Nations, De Villiers dropped him for Steyn. Steyn had come off the bench to kick two important penalties in the second Test against the Lions, penalties that had proved decisive to the final scoreline. De Villiers felt that if the Boks wanted to win matches, they needed an accurate goal-kicker, and that they would just have to make sacrifices in other departments.

But the 2010 Test season showed why goal-kicking is not the be-all and end-all. Steyn maintained his fantastic kicking record, but the Boks lost five of their six Tri-Nations matches. They were also the worst attacking and defensive team in the competition.

Dan Carter was the best flyhalf in that tournament, although his goal-kicking wasn’t as impressive as the other aspects of his game. In the early rounds of the 2011 Super Rugby tournament, Carter has produced similar form for the Crusaders: sparking some fantastic tries on attack but struggling to deliver a consistent goal-kicking performance.

Steyn, in comparison, has disappointed across all facets. And if he continues to struggle for kicking consistency, no argument can be made for his inclusion in the World Cup group.

The Bok selectors should already be considering an experienced head like James to spearhead the Bok backline at the World Cup, and Pienaar and Pat Lambie as alternatives. James boasts an 83% goal-kicking record in Tests, while Pienaar has won some important games for the Sharks and most recently Ulster with his accurate boot. They have the other qualities that will make the Boks competitive, but they aren’t, as so many believe, goal-kicking liabilities.

Lambie is the new golden boy of South African rugby, but it is not yet time for him to hog the spotlight. The Boks should still take him to the World Cup, as he will certainly benefit from the experience. He is the future of the Springboks.

Lambie helped the Sharks to a Currie Cup title in 2010, and has been in good form this season. Apart from his contributions in general play, his goal-kicking has also been a highlight. After five matches, he tops the points table and boasts a goal-kicking percentage of 78%.

It’s encouraging that South Africa have several flyhalf options in a World Cup year, but it will come down to what options are backed at the tournament itself. Steyn is already behind the other major contenders in crucial areas like attack and defence, and unless he improves his goal-kicking, even a conservative Bok selection panel will be reluctant to back him in New Zealand.

Follow JC on Twitter

Follow SA Rugby on Twitter