Durban - The relative serenity with which the build-up week to the Springboks’ first Test of the year against Wales was progressing was abruptly ended on Tuesday evening when it was announced that Frans Steyn had withdrawn from the squad for unspecified reasons.
According to the supersport.com website, a SARU release stated that officials had been advised by Steyn that he did not wish to be considered for the incoming series, and that after lengthy discussion and consultation with the Cell C Sharks utility back, a decision had been made to cede to his request.
In the press release, SARU quoted Steyn as saying that he enjoyed a good relationship with Heyneke Meyer and the rest of the Springbok team, but wanted to take time out to consider his international future.
The SARU release stressed that Steyn had not retired from international rugby but was just taking a break.
Steyn, who is to take up a contract in Japan at the end of the Super Rugby season, will however still be available to play for the Sharks for the rest of that competition.
"The environment in the Springbok squad is fantastic and I would like to state categorically that my relationship with Heyneke Meyer, the rest of the management and my teammates is very good," said Steyn in the statement.
It is likely that the withdrawal will be shrouded in mystery for some time, as SARU chief executive Jurie Roux said Steyn had asked for privacy and that the team management would refrain from speculating on the reasons for his decision to make himself unavailable or his likely return.
"This is not an ideal situation, but in other instances, sudden player absences through injury are not uncommon and I am sure that Heyneke and the selectors will adapt to his unavailability," said Roux.
"Frans is now out of the squad and the team management will respect his wish for privacy by not speculating on his decision or his likely return."
The withdrawal does put a significant spoke in the Bok wheel as they go into the new international season as his appearance in the No 12 jersey in last week’s friendly international against a World XV in Cape Town was an indication that he was the first choice inside centre in the absence of the injured Stormers duo of Jean de Villiers and Damian de Allende.
There is depth at centre, but with Juan de Jongh out with a chest infection this week, the midfield resources are starting to become a bit strained.
Jan Serfontein will almost certainly now get his chance to start at inside centre in the opening Test against Wales at Kings Park on Saturday, with S’bura Sithole or JJ Engelbrecht coming in on the bench.
The Bok team is to be announced on Wednesday, and apart from inside centre and possibly the halfback positions, it is likely to look pretty much the same as it did for last week’s game at Newlands.
The withdrawal of Steyn makes JP Pietersen’s switch to outside centre from wing suddenly look quite fortuitous as there is a shortage of genuine international experience in the midfield.
The SARU press release shed no further light on why Steyn, who has been playing with a chronic knee injury through the Super Rugby season and looked like a player in need of a rest both in the last few games for the Sharks and in the World XV game, has pulled out of the squad.
"I have spoken at length to Frans and we are happy to accede to his request," said Roux.
"He has asked for some time to consider his international playing future and we must respect that.
"Let me make it clear he has not retired from international rugby, but is taking a break from it."