Rugby Championship

Bok fullback: Steyn’s worth another look

2019-08-02 11:49
Frans Steyn (Gallo Images)
Frans Steyn (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - September 2011 ... that is how long it has been since Frans Steyn last started at fullback for the Springboks.

It was the nail-biting RWC 2011 pool match (their opener) against Wales at Wellington, and the hefty individual quickly proved his worth by crashing over in the corner, despite the committed attempts of at least two defenders to thwart him, for a second-minute try.

Steyn basically “bullied” his way over the line like a muscle-laden, 112kg Fijian wing might.

The rest of the game didn’t go especially swimmingly for the Boks, as they had to come from behind pretty late to snatch the mildly fortuitous 17-16 outcome, courtesy of a bust-in try beneath the posts from substitute wing Francois Hougaard.

But then Jean de Villiers - he of the appalling World Cup injury bogey, spanning several tournaments - was ruled out with a rib injury for several games and Steyn’s admirable versatility called on to plug the gap at inside centre.

Steyn has earned a further 14 caps, either as a starter or substitute, in his sometimes stormy onward international career since 2011, but strictly in a midfield capacity - which is also where current head coach Rassie Erasmus only recently reminded that he believes the player is best suited.

Relatively few quibbles on that score?

Nevertheless, if the mastermind suddenly found mishap befalling his similarly experienced, usual first choice at No 15, Willie le Roux, in the leadup to or within fast-looming RWC 2019 itself, a certain amount of head-scratching would follow.

As things stand, main alternative options in the important berth would appear to be specialist Warrick Gelant, the 24-year-old Bulls player who had a sprightly outing against Australia in Johannesburg recently, or the in-form utility back-three dynamo Cheslin Kolbe.

Another possibility, the Stormers’ twinkle-toed and also versatile Damian Willemse, is in a race against time to be fit and match-sharp for RWC consideration in Japan, while it seems Jesse Kriel (42 caps, though little to no Test activity at No 15) has been pigeon-holed solely as an outside centre or sometimes wing these days, after plenty of time in the last line of defence earlier in his first-class career.

The risk with Gelant is that he remains a Test rookie, with six caps overall and only two starts thus far in his favoured position.

As for Kolbe, he had a fabulous outing at right wing against the All Blacks in Wellington very recently, so Erasmus may be reluctant to tamper with the status quo there for the time being.

Kolbe and Le Roux, of course, are vastly different players to Steyn in both playing style and physique: both have an enormous edge in pace, trickery and elusiveness, whereas the Montpellier star relies much more on his height, power and that monster boot for his success in the last line of defence.

But if Le Roux were suddenly laid low, Erasmus might yet be tempted to reconsider the fullback claims of Steyn, primarily on the grounds of his almost equal levels of international street wisdom: Le Roux boasts 54 Bok caps, and Steyn 58.

Even if concerns may surround his speed both off the mark and in a more general context these days, the 32-year-old has enormous, tackle-busting leg strength, is a rock-like figure under a high ball and could also be a useful horses-for-courses pick at No 15 in the event that South Africa find themselves facing a likely wet-weather/heavy-pitch contest.

It is for that reason, arguably, that the Boks could do worse than give Steyn either a start - perhaps the less pressured, non-Rugby Championship home Test against Argentina at Loftus a week after the Salta duel? - or some time off the bench in that role, rather than inside centre, to see whether he still cuts it in the berth at the highest level.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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