A defining return

JON CARDINELLI, writing in Business Day Sport Monthly, says South African rugby thought it had unearthed the next big thing in Frans Steyn after the 2007 World Cup. It didn’t happen, but there’s still time.

The reality of the situation may be difficult to accept, but after six seasons of international rugby, Frans Steyn remains a rough diamond; a study in untapped sporting potential. Despite erudite assurances post the 2007 World Cup that he would become South Africa’s game-changer, the once great prospect has stagnated in some respects, and regressed in others.

Part of the blame lies with the player himself, as it was his decision to spend three years with a mediocre French club, but South African rugby is just as culpable for failing to manage him correctly over the past four years. One would hope that the new Springbok coach adopts a smarter approach in the four that follow. What will help the situation is that Steyn recently declared his intention to sign with a South African union after the expiration of his contract at Racing Metro. It will be a significant homecoming.

While something has been missing from his game over the past four years, a good deal of emotional intelligence has been gained. As Steyn will tell you, the three years in Paris have proved invaluable to his development, perhaps not as a rugby player, but as an overall individual.

Leaving South Africa in 2009 was something he needed to do. He wanted to experience a new culture, but he also wanted to escape the claustrophobic, rugby-obsessed environment where he was cast in alternating roles of hero and villain almost every week. It was a lot to endure for a boy in his early twenties, and while he appeared supremely confident on the surface he was really just as susceptible as any other player to the pressures of public expectation and criticism.

Steyn maintains that he went to France on a journey of discovery, and now that he is returning with that life experience in the bank, he may finally be ready to take his rightful place as one of South Africa’s greats. Whether he will be greeted by a rugby fraternity that feels the same way is another story.

Many rugby legends have been trialled in multiple positions during the initial stages of their careers, but have subsequently settled in one specialist role. Stephen Larkham began as a fullback before Wallabies coach Rod Macqueen shifted him to flyhalf. Christian Cullen could play centre, wing or fullback, but was at his best when he wore the No 15 jersey for the All Blacks. Percy Montgomery played every backline position bar scrumhalf before eventually focusing on fullback, and it’s as one of South Africa’s most influential 15s that he will long be remembered.

Unfortunately, more than five years have passed since Steyn’s Test debut and he still finds himself cursed with the jack of all trades label. His record will show that he has played flyhalf, wing, centre and fullback for his country as well as the Sharks, and three different positions for Racing. While his individual feats have often meant the difference in big Tests, he has rarely been viewed as a first-choice player. His coaches have always been quick to acknowledge his freakish, game-swinging ability, but simultaneously reluctant to declare him the best player in his position.

In 2006, Steyn shone like a beacon of light in an otherwise dark South African landscape. Jake White backed the then 19-year-old, and while the experimental side lost two of their three matches, Steyn emerged as the find of that tour to Ireland and England.

In 2007, he showcased his match-winning threat by coming off the bench and nailing two drop goals (the first from an outrageously unfavourable angle and distance) to help the Boks beat the Wallabies. When Jean de Villiers tore his bicep in the Boks’ opening World Cup match, White replaced the veteran with the precocious talent. The move proved inspired as Steyn enjoyed a fantastic tournament, not only as a hard-running and tackling No 12 but also as a long-range goal-kicking alternative to Montgomery. It was in the 2007 World Cup final that he also redeemed himself for a costly miss in the preceding Super 14 final, slotting a penalty that put the game beyond England’s reach.

Steyn played flyhalf, wing, centre and fullback under White and was never considered first choice when all the backline options were fit. But to say Steyn was mismanaged by White would be unfair, as at that stage of his career he was competing against vastly experienced players still in their prime. That he tasted success when deployed as an impact player, and later as a replacement for De Villiers at the 2007 World Cup, should not have created such expectation, as by the end of that season his rocket was only getting ready to launch.

It was in 2008 that he should have been developed as a specialist, but confusion reigned at franchise and Test level as the respective coaches continued to shift him around the backline. He played four different positions for the Sharks in the 2008 Super 14 and started just two Tests for South Africa (one at flyhalf and one at outside centre).

His biggest contribution in 2008 was as a substitute in that historic victory in Dunedin. Everybody lauded Ricky Januarie for the gamebreaking moment that ended South Africa’s decade-long drought in New Zealand, while Steyn’s match-clinching conversion went largely unacknowledged. He was limited to bit-part roles on the 2008 end-of-year tour, and it took a serious injury to a first-choice player, this time Conrad Jantjes who broke his leg in the 2009 Super 14, for Steyn to gain promotion for the monumental series against the British & Irish Lions. Ironically, it would be Steyn’s line-kicking game from the fullback position that would go a long way towards securing victory in the first two matches.

In De Villiers’ eyes, however, Steyn hadn’t done enough to command a  starting place. In the away leg of the subsequent Tri-Nations, De Villiers opted for Ruan Pienaar in Brisbane and Perth before Pienaar himself begged the Bok management to reconsider Steyn as the premier fullback option. Steyn starred in that decisive fixture in Hamilton with some neat touches in general play and of course, a long-range goal-kicking display that was becoming trademark.

That performance served as a final fling before an unplanned hiatus, as Steyn would not feature again in a full-strength Bok side until the back end of the 2010 Tri-Nations. His commitment to Racing saw his already fractious relationship with De Villiers deteriorate to the point where there was no communication at all, and he was omitted from the touring squad to Europe. In June 2010 new reports emerged that the Bok coach and Steyn were again at loggerheads with the latter portrayed in some publications as a spoilt brat who didn’t value the Bok jersey. Steyn eventually played for a mix-and-match team in Cardiff and turned in a performance that, while underwhelming, was consistent with that of his team-mates. De Villiers nevertheless singled him out as ‘off the pace’ and lamented how just one season in Europe had had a negative impact on his game.

Steyn and De Villiers finally patched things up ahead of the home leg of the 2010 Tri-Nations and he was selected at fullback for the two Tests against Australia. He was shifted to centre, however, for the end-of-year tour to the four home nations, and another season ended with Steyn having played in multiple positions for no other reason than the first-choice option was injured.

He arrived back in South Africa in May 2011 to prepare for the World Cup in New Zealand, and the selectors assured him that he would travel to the tournament as the first-choice fullback. It was in a solid outing against Wales that he began to show signs of settling, but when Jean de Villiers was ruled out with a rib injury Steyn was again asked to switch to centre.

The international press was taken by his subsequent displays against lowly Fiji and Namibia, as well as his robust performance in an ill-tempered bout with Samoa, and his cannon of a goal-kicking boot was hailed as much a psychological weapon as anything else. Defending sides were already less inclined to push the breakdown boundaries in their own half for fear of conceding penalties in tight World Cup matches. With Steyn capable of slotting three-pointers from 60m out, it meant that opposition teams would need to be even more disciplined than ever.

It was for this reason that his own tournament-ending injury was described as a body blow to the Boks. A less emotional assessment would reveal that of his three starts at No 12, two were against the weaker defending sides in the competition. The best players are measured against quality opposition, and since Steyn didn’t start against Wales or Australia in that midfield position, it would be a stretch to claim that he had an outstanding tournament or made any big statements at inside centre.

That’s not to say he can’t be a success at No 12 in the years to come, and in this respect big decisions will need to be made in the next few months. In Steyn and Pat Lambie South Africa have two young players who need to be specialising rather than filling in as needed. These potential gamebreakers need to be installed as starters early in the international season and allowed time to settle and grow as senior members of a new and hopefully more ambitious Bok backline.

While it would be foolish to dispense with the 30-year-old Jean de Villiers completely, it may be time to instate Steyn as the first-choice No 12. The other option is to move Steyn back to fullback in order to exploit his prodigious line-kicking game, but then a finite decision must be made to back Lambie as a flyhalf rather than a 15. There are of course other pieces to the backline puzzle to consider, such as Gio Aplon whose attacking abilities are amplified from the fullback position. There needs to be a plan to incorporate all these ingredients into one cocktail, the potency of which will become stronger over time.

As far as Steyn is concerned, it doesn’t matter who he signs for in South Africa, only that he is backed in a position where he will also play for the Boks. Back from a journey of discovery and hungry for an extended run, he’ll be in the perfect space to assume the responsibility most felt he was ready for in 2008.

– This article appears in the February issue of Business Day Sport Monthly, which is on sale now at selected retailers.