Unravelling the enigmatic Frans Steyn, on and off the field
Frans Steyn is an enigma. Always has been, and probably always will. But he is undeniably an incredible talent that has never not had a role to play in the Springboks, even when he has been absent from the set-up. Now, after a five year hiatus, where does this prodigal son fit in?
Steyn’s early interactions with the Springboks will always be remembered for the way in which this precocious talent stepped into the boots of one of South Africa’s premier centres, Jean de Villiers, to take the Boks to World Cup glory in 2007, at the tender age of 20.
However, Steyn’s actual introduction to the national side came in a pretty special Test in 2006 where he started on the left wing against Ireland wearing the commemorative 1906 centenary jersey, and in true Steyn style, scored a try on debut.
That Test is a personification of a lot of Steyn’s qualities. He stood out from day one with his ability and his versatility to play all across the backline, and to grab the headlines with a powerful try. He was brought into the international spotlight sporting a different look in a white collared, all green jersey, and since then has always been a player that has not gone about things in the usual way.
Although it may not seem like much today, Steyn was heralded as a backline behemoth at 1.9 metres tall and 100kgs with the ability to play flyhalf, fullback, centre and even wing; probably flank too if asked.
As Steyn’s reputation grew, he became integral at the Sharks as well as in the Boks’ set up. His cannon of a boot saw him slotting long range penalties and famous drop goals, but he soon felt the need for more.
Steyn was a bit of a watershed case when he signed for French club Racing Metro in 2010 at only 23. The former Grey College student had a lot to offer, and desired to showcase it on some of the biggest and most diverse of stages. When you have won the World Cup barely out of your teens, it will be hard to chase those highs again.
Dramatically, in 2013, Steyn made a big statement by walking out on the Springboks in the middle of a Test week, before they were due to play Wales in Durban. Brand name rights appeared to be at the centre of the dispute, and Steyn was happy to stick to his principles than play for the Boks as he considered his international future. That was the last Steyn was seen in a green and gold jersey, until last week. A very different Frans Steyn walked through the team’s hotel doors in Plettenberg Bay as preparations began for this French series. In what must be seen as a positive, Steyn is no longer the centre of the Springbok universe. He has so much to offer, but the ego, self importance and weight of expectation is far removed. Steyn comes into the team with a very different role, and while his spot on the field, the bench, or even just in the squad is debated, his role as a mentor is much more straightforward. Steyn is now 30 and has spent many years playing in South Africa, for South Africa, and in France with some of the biggest names in world rugby. To say he has a few tips and tricks, and stories to tell, is an understatement. The word from the Bok camp already is that Steyn has been giving unique insight into the opposition having played with and against many of them.
Additionally, there are a lot of green and untested players in the squad, and going back to the 20-year-old World Cup winner, Steyn can offer a lot of calmness and advice as to how to handle the pressures of international rugby.
But where does Steyn actually fit in when the team sheet is being written up?
Steyn, at 30, is not exactly one for the future in the Bok set up, he is there to fill a role that goes beyond his playing ability, so it has to be remembered that preference should be going to those who are earmarked for greater things.
This immediately puts Steyn towards an impact player off the bench, but what an impact to have! Steyn has the versatility to cover a host of positions in the backs which makes him a luxury to have on the bench - especially if a six-two split is in the offing.
Coming off the bench, Steyn can be a handful too. He has been coached through much of his career to use his physicality over his skill, but sadly his skill is equally good, if not better - but highly under utilized. As the maverick he is in personality, so is he in skill. Steyn will attempt the outrageous if given licence, so when the opposition tires, and the game is tight, who better to break the advantage line, make the miracle pass, and kick the 60 metre penalties?
This crop of Springboks are trying to reinvent their game; skills over pure brawn. In Steyn they have the traditional brawn, but they have this latent ability with ball in hand, waiting to be given the green light, a light Allister Coetzee has given judging by the time he had at Loftus.
There is also no fear in handing Steyn the starting jersey, preferably at No 12 which many herald his greatest position. Little will faze the veteran and he will not shirk any responsibility.
Of course, having Steyn in the same hotel as guys who are barely 20 themselves is a huge asset, and one mitigating argument for why foreign based Boks should be allowed to play for their country. Don’t punish those with priceless experience who have paid their dues - allow the veterans who can contribute to be part of the Boks set up and let them remind the new generation of that winning culture from 2007, 08, 09.