Francois Steyn should have been a Springbok centurion by now. He’s accumulated just over half of those caps, but it’s a stockpile that’s well below expectation for such an immense rugby talent who was 19 when he made his Test debut in 2006.
Often described as an enigma, Steyn has spearheaded his own unique journey. What isn’t a mystery is the man’s obvious talent, one of the most gifted rugby figures of his generation.
On the rugby battlefield, Steyn is a heavy artillery piece and Rassie Erasmus must unleash this considerable firepower at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
The Grey College prodigy last played for South Africa in 2017, recalled to face France after a three-year absence when both Handre Pollard and Pat Lambie were ruled out. In 2015, personal reasons forced Heyneke Meyer’s hand and the player wasn’t included in his World Cup squad.
Steyn, 32, must surely view this year’s global showpiece as a last opportunity to reclaim his place on centre stage and to make peace with the ghost of missed opportunity.
He may be in the twilight of his career but he’s still younger than Percy Montgomery and Os du Randt were in 2007, younger than Jean de Villiers and Fourie Du Preez were in 2015, and he’ll be younger than both Duane Vermeulen and Tendai Mtawarira come kick-off time in Japan.
Having joined Montpellier in 2016, Steyn routinely partners compatriot centre Jan Serfontein. Injuries to both Aaron Cruden and Johan Goosen have also seen him log minutes at pivot (the position where he launched his professional career) during what is reportedly his final season for the Top 14 side.
Barring scrumhalf, Steyn has played in every position across the Springbok backline and done so effectively. His ability to slot in comfortably at either 12 or 15 is arguably beyond peer in the international game. He remains a commanding and intimidating on-field presence, and he has the ability to single-handedly change the momentum of a game.
Erasmus has stated that he’ll only select players who are hungry to play for South Africa. Invited to the latest alignment camp, Steyn must now convince the coach that he still has the desire, along with the sharpness to back it up. If he passes that test, Steyn will be the best utility back available to Erasmus.
The Bok coach has yet to call up Serfontein and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that he will as the Test season looms. Steyn is thus the most formidable backup to Damian de Allende in possibly his best position and the one in which he won the Webb Ellis Cup in 2007.
Handre Pollard has in the past shifted to 12 when Elton Jantjies has come on to play flyhalf, but Pollard is clearly Erasmus’s first-choice 10. Crucially, Steyn has the closest game to Pollard amid all the options at Erasmus’ disposal, able to fiercely defend his channel as well as boss the gain line.
If Pollard winds up crocked or suspended, Erasmus must look to Steyn to fill this void.
Likewise, with a crop of fresh-faced wings, Steyn would provide stability and security to the back three in the event of Willie Le Roux’s absence. Promising youngsters like Curwin Bosch, Damian Willemse, Andre Esterhuizen and Warrick Gelant simply don’t yet have the Test experience or the accomplished versatility to compare.
Some may argue that Steyn was just as green when he was instrumental in winning the World Cup. But the aforementioned quartet has yet to put in shifts as special as Steyn did when he first burst onto the scene.
They are all wonderful talents who will hopefully go on to play for South Africa for years to come. But the grand contest that is almost upon us calls for a cannon and not a pistol.
Erasmus must put his faith in the grizzled warhorse that is Frans Steyn to deliver.
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