Boy to man

RYAN VREDE discovers that Frans Steyn has grown up as a player and a person during his time with Racing Métro.

It was in Paris in the World Cup final where a 20-year-old Frans Steyn confirmed his standing as one of the pre-eminent young players on the planet, exhibiting skill and temperament that belied his age. In seven weeks the city had captured his heart, and this would later make it easier for its iconic club, Racing Métro, to capture his signature.

The news of his departure was met with widespread dismay in South Africa. There was a distinct sense in the rugby fraternity that a favourite son had been lost. His advocates slammed the Sharks’ and Springboks’ administrators for meekly conceding defeat in the matter. His detractors pounced, adding mercenary to their list of charges against him.

Neither camp considered the potential benefits of the move. Paris’s aptitude as a foster parent was dismissed. The national discussion centred around why he wanted to leave, when it should have been around why he needed to.

Since Steyn’s emergence in 2006, he had commanded more attention than any player in South Africa. It was obvious, even in his rookie season in 2006, that he was a preternatural Test player, and he hasn’t been an impostor in elevated company since debuting in defeat to Ireland.

Soon every performance was being brutally dissected. Having applied a standard of measurement not befitting a kid whose journey had only just begun, it was somehow deemed acceptable to make an absolute judgement on him after every match.

Escaping the madness must have held a strong appeal, although it would be remiss to ignore the attraction of a reported R8 million- a-year contract, and the incentive of living in one of the world’s great cities during the most impressionable years of his life.

For the more astute, the pain of losing Steyn was somewhat soothed by the knowledge that the Springboks would benefit from the refinement process
he would undergo.

Elite players who have had a stint in Europe have always progressed from a technical perspective. However, former Springbok and Sharks flanker Shaun Sowerby, who spent three years at Paris glamour club Stade Français, says improved technical skills is not the most valuable acquisition in that refinement process.

‘I would place a higher premium on how his experience would have ensured greater emotional maturity,’ he says. ‘I arrived in Paris with a fairly limited view of the world and still plagued by insecurities. But I’m a better man now, with a greater sense of self-awareness.

‘This is due to a couple of factors. You’re in a foreign land for an extended period and you’re forced to cope. The growth that comes from that needs no elaboration. You also meet interesting people who challenge your world view and encourage you to think deeper.

‘Most importantly, you don’t feel suffocated by rugby. I can only assume Frans was feeling this way, given the intense scrutiny he was constantly under in South Africa.

‘Parisians are not obsessed with the sport, unlike every city in South Africa. So unlike back home where it is difficult to develop an identity that is divorced from what you do and the implications that come with that skewed link, you have room to establish a healthier sense of identity.

‘Becoming a better man contributes immeasurably to becoming a better rugby player, which, on the evidence of what I’ve seen when playing against him or watching him on telly, he is.’

Sowerby, however, cautions that Steyn needs to be managed astutely for the Springboks to derive the maximum from him.

‘It would be too simplistic to predict that the Springboks will benefit from this [his refinement] because you have to also consider the influence of the environment created for him at Racing and whether the Boks can replicate that. It’s one that encourages self-expression, and if they [the Springboks] do get it right, like they did in 2007, I suspect he will be hugely influential in New Zealand.’

Steyn isn’t given to moments of deep introspection, but when probed on the issue he admits to feeling like he has left the sometimes impetuous kid in his past.

‘My time in France has been challenging in the sense that I came from a comfort zone into the unknown. I never really suffered from a fear of failure, but it wouldn’t be entirely true if I said I wasn’t very aware of the magnitude of this step.

‘I knew playing in France would improve me as a player, but I probably underestimated what it would do for my personal growth.’

Steyn’s Racing team-mate, former Springbok and Bulls loose forward Jacques Cronjé, offers authoritative insight into his evolution as a player and extols his on-field value.

‘When he arrived there was a lot of expectation on him. He was a World Cup and Tri-Nations winner, but more than that, he had played big roles in those successes. Some clubs recruit players to add depth to the squad. That wasn’t the case with Frans. Everyone here expected him to make a massive difference, and he has delivered,’ Cronjé says.

‘From what I’ve seen, the key to getting the best out of Frans is constant positive reinforcement and not burdening him with too much responsibility. He is your match-winner and you want that to be his only focus on the day.

‘He kicked a 60m drop goal in a match against Clermont last season and the guys were going mad about it in the change room afterwards. He just shrugged his shoulders like that sort of thing is normal. That’s the freak talent he is and it illustrates the self-belief he has.

‘He used to be guilty of trying mad things deep in his half, but he has outgrown that. He has shown the decision-making ability of a mature player. As a coach I would be giving him a pat on the back and saying, “Back yourself to win us the match however you see fit”. Nothing more. That’s how Pierre Berbizier [the Racing coach] deals with him and so did Jake [White, former Springbok coach]. He responds to that.’

Steyn was subjected to public criticism from Springbok coach Peter de Villiers in 2010, with De Villiers arguing that Steyn’s time in France had significantly diluted his potency. That view was given more credibility when Fourie du Preez reiterated it in a recent interview with SA Rugby magazine. ‘Frans is not the player he was,’ he offered.

There was also the suggestion that he had lost his desire to play for the Springboks. Steyn rubbishes both points.

‘I love the Springboks and have never once even been close to ending my international career. I’ve read people say that winning the World Cup at 20 and the Tri-Nations two years later lowered my motivation to continue with the Boks. That’s nonsense. If anything, winning those competitions makes you hungrier to do it again.

‘On the point of playing in the northern hemisphere, yes the pace of the game is generally slower because conditions in winter don’t usually suit an expansive style. But that doesn’t mean the players and teams here don’t possess the skill to play that way. You only need to watch matches between the big sides to know the potential exists when the weather plays its part.

‘To say playing there significantly affects my game isn’t right. Since I’ve played for the Boks as a Racing player I felt like some people were waiting for me to do something wrong so that they could confirm their views.

‘I don’t feel any different, slower, or so on. If anything I feel like a more complete player. Whatever I may lack [initially] in terms of speed and sharpness, I make up for in having better anticipation and vision. I also think my composure under pressure is better than it has been at any stage of my career.’

Sowerby is in no doubt that the Springboks will take a better version of an already formidable player to the World Cup. But amid all the talk of growing up, he also hopes, in some ways, that Steyn never does.

‘Sometimes young players lose an edge when they become better equipped to process the world around them. They lose that fearlessness that made them so dangerous in the first place.

‘I don’t think it will happen with Frans. If he plays with the spirit and freedom of a boy, but the brain and temperament of a man, which is what I’ve seen him do at Racing, boy, the Springboks will have some player on their hands.’

– This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine. The September issue – a 260-page World Cup special – will be on sale from 24 August.