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