Why Morne must start in UK
Editor of ArenaSport, David Moseley (File)
If we wanted to be harsh, and in South Africa we are never harsher than when appraising the success or failure of the Springboks, we could say that Morne Steyn’s finest moments in a Springbok jersey came inside his first four Test matches.
Briefly, Steyn made his Test debut when he came on in against the British & Irish Lions in the 61st minute of the second Test at Loftus. We all know how that ended, with Steyn sinking the Lions in the 80th minute thanks to a nerveless penalty from 53 metres. The Springboks won the series with that kick and Steyn earned a starting spot in a rag-tag team to play the dead rubber a week later.
Later that season Ruan Pienaar was reinstated as first choice flyhalf (he started the Lions Series at 10) for the opening Tri-Nations fixture against New Zealand in Bloemfontein, with Steyn coming off the bench to land three penalties in a 28-19 win. The next weekend in Durban Steyn started against the All Blacks and scored a try, a conversion and eight penalties to take home all the points in a 31-19 win for the Boks.
In that match he claimed the record for most points scored by a player who has scored all their team's points (31), the most points scored against New Zealand in a single Test and the South African record for penalties in a Test (8) – beating the seven achieved twice by former fullback Percy Montgomery.
Since then Steyn has gone on to score 486 points for the Boks, while also achieving the record for most consecutive successful kicks at goal in Tests (since statistics for that category were first kept in the late 1980s). His hot streak included 41 successful attempts that ended on November 6, 2010 against Ireland. Do the stats lie?
Being cultured rugby watchers I know you know all the stats. And we all know that the stats often don’t tell the full story. But it’s important to look back on Steyn’s contributions to the national cause as we look to debate his future in the Springbok side. Say what you like about the man in his current guise, but look at those figures, particularly his achievement in coming off the bench in his Test debut to win a series that the team was desperate to win.
On paper, South Africa was the better team going into the Lions series. Somehow, through muddled selection and Peter de Villiers’ lunacy, the Boks contrived to keep the British & Irish Lions in that series when they should have been dead and buried, nay, pulverised to pieces after the first Test.
Instead the Boks gave them a sniff and so the second Test remained in the balance until Heinrich Brussow, Jaque Fourie and Steyn all came onto the field (all three of them around the 55-60th minute mark). As an aside, remember too that Brussow only came on because original substitute Danie Rossouw was knocked out cold with two minutes of coming off the bench.
So, for Steyn to rise to the occasion in the manner he did, when a desperate home side was throwing everything at the tourists, coupled with his all-star performance of 31 points (only his second start for the Bok) against the All Blacks and taking into account his slew of kicking and points records for the Boks since then, we can safely surmise that he is a man of incredible courage and mental strength.
Unfortunately, he’s a victim of his own success. We sing (the praises) when he’s slotting from all angles and the Boks are winning. But as soon as they lose all the blame falls on Steyn. Why? Because he’s the easiest target. We’ve fallen into the misconception that he’s only selected for his kicking. So when he starts duffing his one trump card, the mindless vultures are quick to peck out his eyes and pick apart his game.
More sober-minded rugby fans will realise that in the time Steyn has been playing international rugby he’s hardly had a direct competitor for the No 10 jersey. It’s also worth pointing out that he’s been the only consistent selection at flyhalf in almost a decade of Bok rugby, so fans have had plenty of time to adore him, question him and, finally, berate him.
Consider the man he replaced, Ruan Pienaar. Somehow the fabulous yet infuriatingly inconsistent scrumhalf has amassed 60 Test caps without ever really imposing himself in the Green jumper.
Pienaar moved off to Europe in 2010, leaving Steyn as the sole candidate for international flyhalf honours. Since Steyn made his debut there have been calls for Peter Grant (excellent at domestic level, but never a serious contender for prolonged national duty) to get a crack at 10, try Frans Steyn (who played wing in his first Bok Test), while even Earl Rose was championed (by those on crack cocaine) at one stage.
The harsh reality, though, is that no one in domestic rugby has been breathing down Steyn’s neck… not before he made his Bok debut, and not until Patrick Lambie showed up, and then Elton Jantjies and now, or course, the injured Johan Goosen. It’s also worth mentioning that the exciting talents of Goosen only managed to wrangle their way into the Bok side due to public pressure and a dip in form from Steyn, and had absolutely nothing to do with Goosen performing at a sustained level of excellence. How could he, he was injured for most of the season. Enter the nightmare
In fact, the flyhalf position is something of a black hole for Springbok rugby. Before Morne Steyn made his Test debut in 2009, the last out-and-out flyhalf to debut for the Boks was Andre Pretorius in 2002 (Butch James made his debut a year earlier). That’s quite outrageous for a so-called rugby powerhouse.
In between the debuts of Pretorius and Steyn (looking specifically at 10s to make their debuts in that time period) Springbok fans have witnessed a conveyor belt of pretenders sliding in and out of the flyhalf jersey. Derick Hougaard, Meyer Bosman, Ruan Pienaar and Peter Grant have all had a crack, only to fall through them. Remember also that Brent Russell (debut in same Test as Andre Pretorius) won four of his 23 caps at flyhalf. So the national side has hardly been blessed with Stephen Larkham, Daniel Carter or Jonny Wilkinson-like consistency at 10.
Lambie, Jantjies and Goosen have all come along to steal Steyn’s thunder, with the likely near-future tussle to be a three-way affair between Steyn, Goosen and Jantjies. It’s fair to assume, based on Heyneke Meyer’s (mis)use of Lambie this season, that the Sharks man will have to produce miracles to get more than 20 minutes on the field, let alone a starting No 10 jumper.
All this is to say that Steyn, so often maligned for simply doing his job, has hardly had to once look over his shoulder. It’s also horribly unfair to criticise the man, and now praise Goosen over-enthusiastically, when it’s quite evident that Steyn has been following the tactics of his coach(es).
Steyn has his limitations as a creative force, but he’s only doing what he’s told out there. Goosen comes into the side with much unjust fanfare and all of a sudden the Boks are the new All Blacks, with a new strategy and new game plan. That’s the hardly the case (Jean de Villiers himself noted in a post-match interview with Matthew Pearce that the Boks barely changed their tactics during the win against Australia at Loftus), but it looks that way to the naked eye because everyone has convinced themselves that Steyn just hoofs it up in the air. Steyn for one more
But what now, for Europe? Goosen is out and Elton Jantjies is technically the current incumbent at 10. Do you start him at flyhalf against Ireland, Scotland and England?
Past history dictates that Ireland is the main game on this end of year tour. Three out the last five Test matches between the two nations have been won by Ireland (the last being a narrow 23-21 away for the Boks in 2010), with a testy little rivalry developing between the two nations at the same time. If any match on tour comes down to the wire, it will be this one.
This is also the first fixture of the tour, so more than anything it’s a must-win game for a Bok side that performed realistically about par this year, but by fan expectation way below level. Do you go with the exciting, dazzling Jantjies or the proven match-winner Morne Steyn?
That would be an easy question if the Boks had come out of the Rugby Championship on a high – play the kid, excite the nation. But Meyer is fighting for wins and, whether he admits it or not, approval from Bok supporters (and possibly his employers).
Similarly, the last time South Africa (four wins in last five games) played Scotland the Scots ruined the Boks’ chances of a Grand Slam in a soaked Edinburgh. Jantjies or Steyn? In that weather? Go on, you’re a brave man to throw Jantjies to the wolves when pride is at stake (that being said, I’m no fan of cotton-wooling youngsters. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough).
Based on past records, the only surefire win of the tour is against England (9 wins for the Boks in 10 previous matches, with only that miserable draw in PE earlier this year breaking the habit).
Jantjies was sure-footed and showed no signs of being over-awed at the FNB Stadium this past Saturday. No mean feat in front of 80 000 supporters praying for a win. He’s clearly a player for the big occasion, but up until now he hasn’t been the out-and-out favourite to start at flyhalf for the Boks. The pressure has always been on Steyn, then Goosen (did it show in those missed kicks?) and only now will the Lions man feel it’s full, furious force.
Morne Steyn is no one-match wonder. He has the stats to prove that he’s the man for the big moments. Barring a catastrophic meltdown in the remainder of the Currie Cup he’ll probably show glimpses of his old form, perhaps even regain his full confidence.
If he does, then he’s got to be your starting 10 for the end of year tour. It won’t be footloose and fancy-free rugby, and with the Bok pack looking settled, Steyn will have the space he craves to make his mark. Ruan Pienaar will also be back on the continent where he seems to play his best rugby, so perhaps the two of them can combine to create some glorious, sweet, winning music.
Steyn’s days are clearly numbered, because it appears that in Jantjies and Goosen South Africa finally have the flyhalves they’ve been wishing at shooting stars for (like London busses, they never come on time, but when they do they arrive in pairs).
Short term, and looking at this tour in isolation, Morne Steyn goes. And starts.
Case closed. David Moseley is a former Features Editor of Sports Illustrated and current editor of sports magazine website ArenaSport. Click HERE to follow ArenaSport on Twitter.
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