JON CARDINELLI writes Frans Steyn still has what it takes to play an influential and ultimately series-defining role at No 12.
We all know what Frans Steyn can do. We’ve all witnessed the match-winning feats over the past six years: the two drop goals in the 2007 Tri-Nations opener against Australia, the game-clinching penalty in the 2007 World Cup final, the conversion that ended a 10-year hoodoo in New Zealand in 2008, and a prodigious line-kicking effort that went a long way to sinking the British & Irish Lions in 2009.
Some people may argue that he has never been as good since he joined Racing Metro after the 2009 Tri-Nations. They have a point.
Former Bok kicking coach Percy Montgomery told me recently that whenever Steyn rejoined the national team after a season in France his conditioning was not up to standard. It is something that many coaches have discovered after recruiting players from the French leagues, and is one of the reasons Marius Joubert hasn’t been used by the Sharks to a greater extent since moving back from Clermont.
But as Montgomery was quick to point out, a Steyn playing at 80% of his potential is still a special player. He was one of the Boks’ best players at the 2011 World Cup, his physical presence in midfield causing problems for opposition defences, and his long-range goal-kicking exploits influencing the tactics of opposition coaches.
He’s thrived in that set-up as a hard-running, big-tackling centre. He has the line-kicking game that can mean the difference in a battle for territory and can provide his team with a long-range goal-kicking alternative. In a forward-oriented, territorial arm-wrestle with England, Bok coach Heyneke Meyer should back a player who can give South Africa an edge in these departments.
In the current issue of SA Rugby magazine, Meyer tells me why Steyn is in his plans and why he has the skills to become one of the most influential centres on the planet.
Since Meyer and I had that conversation, quite a bit has happened. Racing Metro were knocked out of the Top 14 play-offs on Saturday and Steyn has subsequently confirmed, although it was hardly a secret, that he would play for the Sharks.
That Steyn played fullback for Racing in the play-off against Toulon shouldn’t be a concern, as he has the talent to play more than one position even at the highest level, a fact that was most evident at the 2011 World Cup.
What should be a concern is Steyn’s conditioning. He recently returned from injury and is short on game time.
Having said that, there were still flashes of the old Steyn in Saturday’s match. He nailed one long-range goal kick, and if his captain had entrusted him with more of the goal-kicking responsibilities, Racing would be playing in the Top 14 semi-finals this weekend. As it was, Racing’s preferred kickers missed four attempts at goal and the Parisians lost 17-13.
Despite playing at fullback, Steyn also weighed in with some big defensive hits, and looks to have lost no power in his line-kicking boot. These are the skills Meyer will cherish when the Boks tackle England.
Steyn is not going to be at his absolute best against England. The same was true of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw when they played their first few games for the Crusaders in 2012 after returning from long-term injuries. But would you leave a returning Carter or McCaw out of big international clash?
The answer is no, and the same logic should be applied to the selection of Steyn. He should play in the coming Tests and he should be expected to play an influential role in a Bok series victory.