Boks will miss ‘The Mule’

JON CARDINELLI writes that Frans Steyn’s tournament-ending injury will impact on the Springboks’ game plan as well as the composition of the match 22.

The Boks were expected to win Pool D, but there were always going to be casualties. Several players hobbled off injured during the course of a Friday’s brutal pool finale, and it was later revealed that Steyn, a player who finished the match, would play no further part in the tournament.

The blow couldn’t have come at a worse time for both player and country. While the Boks squandered a series of attacking opportunities at North Harbour Stadium, they showed signs of the structure and application that won them the World Cup in 2007, as well as a British & Irish Lions series and Tri-Nations in 2009.

Over the course of the pool stage, Steyn has shown himself to be a key ingredient to the winning formula, and on Friday he again contributed two outrageous penalties from inside his own half.

Bok assistant coach Dick Muir said in the build up that Steyn had the X factor. Muir explained his statement by referring to Steyn’s prodigious kicking game. Be it in the tactical- or goal-kicking department, Steyn can swing a game.

His ability to strike the ball further than any one else can be the difference in a tight finish. He weighed in with some booming tactical punts in the first pool match against Wales, and has over the course of four matches kicked some monster penalties from as far as 60m out.

Which other international player, or indeed which other rugby nation, can boast such a weapon in their arsenal?

Sadly, Steyn’s World Cup is over. The Boks will no longer have that cannon of a boot at their disposal, or that versatile player who can excel in several different positions.

Injuries to Jean de Villiers and Butch James forced the selectors to move Steyn to inside centre for the matches against Fiji and Namibia. Steyn impressed as a ball carrier and defender, and managed to make the No 12 jersey his own as the play-offs drew nearer.

His versatility meant that Peter de Villiers could pick five forwards on the bench. Francois Hougaard and Jean de Villiers were the only backline reserves for the Samoa game, because the coaches knew that Steyn could cover flyhalf and fullback in the event of an injury.

Now that he’s out of the picture, they have no such luxury, unless of course they reconsider bringing the underplayed Ruan Pienaar in from the cold.

Regardless of where he played in the quarter-final, Steyn would have, as Muir suggested, offered the Boks that precious little bit extra. The Boks’ game plan is all about playing in the opposition’s half, and they rely heavily on the boots of Fourie du Preez, Morne Steyn and Frans Steyn to win the territorial battle.

The latter player is especially influential when he lines up at 15 and produces those ground-gaining punts. It could be viewed as conceding possession, but it allows the Boks ample opportunity to chase and apply defensive pressure, or contest the opposition lineout if the ball drifts into touch.

If all the players were fit, I would still bank on De Villiers at inside centre and Steyn at fullback. Pat Lambie is the future of Springbok rugby and should be seen as the answer at flyhalf after this World Cup, but at present he lacks the experience to be a success within the Boks’ current World Cup game plan.

As it stands, Lambie will continue at 15 for the remainder of the tournament, while De Villiers will resume his role at 12. The Bok brains trust will need to revise their bench dynamic, and adjust their game plan for the upcoming clash.

While Lambie is a talented kicker, he’s not yet in the class of Frans Steyn. The Boks will miss Steyn’s momentum-shifting qualities, from his ability to nail long-range penalty and drop goals to his raking tactical probes, when they come up against a Wallabies side stacked with players that are as gifted with the boot as they are with ball in hand.

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