Johannesburg - Not long after Frans Steyn broke into international rugby as a 19-year-old in 2006, Thomas Castaignède – the gifted former French utility back – was moved to write “the rugby gods must have been overlooking his cot when he was born”.
At the time, the Springbok utility back was a man-child at 1.91m and 101kg, and most people who knew their rugby thought he was able to cover all the backline positions except scrum half.
Talent is there
Eleven years later, Steyn is still the youngest player to win a World Cup – at 20 years and 159 days old – the youngest to be capped 50 times by the Springboks (at 25) and, after stints in France and Japan, has probably put enough money under the mattress to be set for life.
Yet there’s lingering doubt about whether he has fulfilled the playing potential that had Castaignède reaching for his most vivid prose to describe what he meant for world rugby.
Going into Saturday's first Test against France, Steyn – now 30 – was sitting on 53 caps, having last played for South Africa in 2014. Fifty Test caps is 50 Test caps, but that number puts him in the same bracket as Pat Lambie (56), who, for all his lucklessness, is no Frans Steyn.
This is why Steyn, through his trials and tribulations, has come to represent everything right and wrong about our rugby. The prevailing narrative of our rugby is that the talent is there, but too often we fail by not developing it to reach its full potential, or by allowing it to fall through the cracks.
From the very beginning, Steyn was misdiagnosed as a flyhalf at the time he had neither the understanding of time and space nor the inclination to put players outside him away. The reason for that call was that he was a strapping lad at Grey College who was used to running through teams on his own and he had a howitzer boot.
That he was on the bench against the French as backup for flyhalf, when the intervening years have proved him to be an inside centre who mostly takes it up or a fullback who kicks it a mile, shows that we don’t mind making the same mistake over and over again.
Granted, with Lambie and Handrè Pollard out of sorts, the flyhalf situation is a bit ropey for the Boks, but too many people still think of Steyn as a standoff.
Looking at his development, it’s safe to say Steyn never kicked on from the 2007 Rugby World Cup final, despite being an automatic selection for pretty much every team he has played for since.
In a way, he reminds one of an undeveloped Ma’a Nonu. Where the former All Black initially relied heavily on his Maori sidestep but went on to learn how to kick and pass, Steyn didn’t really add soft touches like passing and offloading to his hard-running routine, and his two party tricks of drop-kicking and place-kicking from the parking lot.
Throughout his career, one has never got the impression Steyn has harnessed his considerable gifts to consistently deliver. Instead, he has been about sporadic flashes of genius like place-kicking from 60m or the odd sublime pass, and a lack of insistent coaching is to blame for that.
In leaving for Racing Metro at 22, Steyn indirectly began the new trend of players leaving the country before even playing for the Boks.
And by quitting the Boks in a huff in 2014, he has also unwittingly introduced the culture of entitlement that has seen the likes of Faf de Klerk sign the first available European contract the moment he looked like he wasn’t part of Allister Coetzee’s plans.
The fact that Steyn left because of broken promises by SA Rugby for the kind of deal they should not have agreed to is valid enough and reflects poorly on the governing body. But what remains is that decent rugby players in South Africa are better compensated than the vast majority of people in this country.
Just in case this sounds like an attack on Steyn, it isn’t. It is, however, using one player as an example of how haphazardly we manage talent in South Africa and still expect consistent results.
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