JON CARDINELLI says Frans Steyn struck an imposing figure at fullback in Sunday’s win in Wellington and will be a key man for the Springboks in the crunch games.
Gone is the impostor with rugged mane and equally wild, some would say careless, approach to the game. Frans Steyn has undergone a transformation over the past few weeks. He’s shaved the mop of hair and more importantly rediscovered the physical edge, line-kicking accuracy and game-winning attitude that made him such a force at the 2007 World Cup.
When I spoke to former Bok technical advisor Eddie Jones a month ago, he said he was disappointed with Steyn’s progress. In 2007, Jake White and Jones had tipped Steyn to become one of the greats, a once in a generation player. Four years later, Jones lamented Steyn’s defection to France and the negative impact it had had on his game. Jones spoke sadly and without much hope that the kid would rediscover that magic touch.
In the Boks’ biggest game of the 2011 World Cup pool phase, Steyn showed signs that the magic is still there. In the most difficult of conditions, he was the best player under the high ball, and his positional play was outstanding.
He’s clearly lost none of the kicking power in that cannon of a right boot, and for the first time since 2009 showed that he still has the vision and accuracy to translate that power into territorial dominance.
It bodes well for a Bok side hoping to pick up momentum ahead of the play-offs. The Boks will stick to their defensive, kick-oriented approach, and men like Fourie du Preez and Steyn will play key roles in terms of kicking for field position. From there the Boks will look to pressure teams through their intimidating lineout as well as their aggressive loose forwards (read Schalk Burger and fetcher Heinrich Brussow).
The most encouraging thing about Steyn’s display at the Cake Tin was that he did everything with intent. He began the match impressively by bulldozing two Welsh defenders en route to the tryline, and his physicality in the tackle helped the Boks out of some sticky situations in the subsequent 76 minutes. It would be fair to say that he was at the opposite end of the spectrum to his namesake, Morne Steyn, who failed to show the necessary intent, passion and physicality required of an international player.
If Steyn continues to improve in the remaining pool matches he should be somewhere near his best come the knock-out stages. The balance and indeed the potency of the Bok back three will also be aided by new selections, as Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen continue to struggle on the international stage.
After multiple chances, Habana has failed to show the class that made him a world beater in 2007. It’s time to face facts: Form may be temporary, Habana’s slump is not.
Pietersen’s work rate must come into question after another quiet game in Wellington. It’s criminal that Habana and Pietersen continue to be selected when players of the ilk of Francois Hougaard and Gio Aplon are available.
Hougaard lent excitement and penetration to the Bok attack when he was introduced in the second half, and we all know what Aplon is capable of when afforded the space to run. The Boks have already committed to a specific game plan to take them through the tournament, but it can be tweaked to incorporate counter-attacking threats like Hougaard and Aplon.
De Villiers will argue that Habana and Pietersen are doing a good job, but why stick with the average when you have the brilliant at your disposal?
The Boks are too predictable at the moment because all their back three offer is a kick return. Steyn will play a crucial role in this respect, but it’s also important to have some variation and picking Aplon and Hougaard will give the Boks counter-attacking options.
This will in turn keep the opposition honest, as they’re unlikely to kick incessantly on the Bok back-three if there is a danger of a counter-attack.
Some players are performing, some are coasting, and others have been shown to be out of their depth. De Villiers needs to get rid of the dead wood if he wants the Boks to succeed with their chosen template.