Boks on Tour

Is Steyn damaging his career?

2010-12-02 08:38
Francois Steyn (Gallo)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – Now back in the less glamorous surrounds of his French club, the once wunderkind Francois Steyn will be left to reflect on a funny old November with the Springboks.

The latest, failed crack at the Grand Slam was an odd one for the team as whole, in that they blew it against Scotland, the side they were tipped to most comfortably see off, while leaping supposedly more perilous hurdles like Ireland and England.

For Steyn, too, trying to sum up his contribution to the end-of-year cause is an exercise tangled in uncertainty, and some pros to accompany cons.

Give this utility back par excellence some well-merited credit, first up: with South Africa stripped for the entire tour of a battery of injured midfield customers, he appeared to step pretty willingly into the unfamiliar berth – even for him – of outside centre from the Wales game onward.

At least the Boks had the seasoned and proven Jean de Villiers on hand to pull the No 12 strings, but they had a real problem a tad wider on the park – Zane Kirchner briefly plugged the hole in Dublin until Steyn became available -- and the former Sharks favourite took up the challenge from games two to four.

It would be cruel to say in a clear-cut manner that Steyn “failed”. After all, he used his known physicality to telling effect defensively, sometimes flinging foes crudely and forcefully to the deck – Shane Williams will testify to that – while within the bounds of the laws.

With a bit of luck the Springbok brains trust always knew beforehand, and ought to be even more convinced now, that outside centre is no permanent home for the strong-willed Racing Metro man, 23.

It is normally reserved for a more slippery footballer with trickery in his toes and a sharp turn of speed from the blocks: the sort of player who can be “put away” through a gap with the help of deft creative work from his midfield partner of perhaps even a skip pass from further away.

Through no special fault of his own, the stout Steyn is just not equipped in this manner, and it should have been clearly apparent. He was a stop-gap measure; it was good of him to be a relative fish out of water at a time of need.

But while playing out of position must always carry some mitigating elements, Steyn probably also unwittingly enhanced a growing belief that in plying his trade in more ponderous northern climes he is doing himself no favours for the prospect of continued regular caps for his country.

There were occasions on attack, over the three weeks of his Bok involvement, where he looked too obviously leaden, unsure of what his next move should be, or would arguably even put a bit of a spanner in the works as try-scoring opportunities beckoned others.

The Guardian’s astute Robert Kitson noted, in an otherwise warm assessment of the Boks after they’d given England a Twickenham lesson: “Francois Steyn looked out of synch with several of his colleagues – it’s an occupational hazard if you decide to leave Durban to play in the French Top 14.”

Indeed. The lure may be lucrative – Steyn is estimated to be pocketing some R7-million a season with Racing until well into 2012 – but is it coming at a rugby price for him?

Anyone who watched Australia’s amazing Parisian demolition of France last Saturday night – the home side left the pitch to a deafening chorus of boos – will also have had suspicions confirmed that the game in that country is in a trough, with the famous Gallic flair seemingly being throttled inexplicably out of its players.

We may be talking the national side to a greater degree, but it is difficult to believe it is all singing, all dancing right now in their Top 14, either.

Under such circumstances, might Steyn being absent from the probably way more up-tempo environment of the Super 15 and Currie Cup be to his detriment more and more?

Steyn has always tended to do things “his way”: he is a rare case of a quality South African player opting out of the fold in his homeland long before he has reached a peak in age terms.

He had won a World Cup by the time he was 20 -- it must have seemed like a magic carpet ride.

But has the ride perhaps dropped him off in the wrong place? Is he going to succumb to some damaging form of “rot” in France?

Given his incredible versatility, especially, Steyn should be a prize asset for the Bok squad for many years to come.

But he needs to be careful, because a few positional doors may just be slowly closing on him.

 Personally, I don’t believe he is up to the task yet of running the show at all-important flyhalf for South Africa (he’s not a great one for following an intended “script”), whilst the midfield berths will soon see frenzied competition resume between De Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Juan de Jongh and various other SA-based gems.

Didn’t you think, too, that when the sometimes maligned Adi Jacobs entered the No 13 channel off the bench against England, the Bok backline suddenly revealed notably greater zip and zest?

That probably only leaves fullback as a gap Steyn might exploit – many critics rightly feel his booming boot and bodily strength under the “bomb” are best put to use there.

But even there, the likes of Gio Aplon, an altogether contrasting physical beast and with very different strengths, may find they earn approving ticks from key people in the hot glow of the “southern” spotlight, while Steyn soldiers on sometimes anonymously at Racing Metro against La Rochelle and Aviron Bayonnais ...

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