If it’s not bad enough that he’s now being asked to play yet another position in the Bok backline, it seems the continual to-ing and fro-ing between himself and coach Peter de Villiers has left Frans Steyn somewhat bemused as to exactly how and where he fits into the current Bok plans.
Now, regular readers will know that I’m not a huge Steyn fan and haven’t really been for quite some time. Looking back over the statistics of a test career that spans an impressive 39 outings prior to this weekend’s match (impressive indeed considering he’s only 23), even the most jaundiced observer (i.e. me) would have to admit that the lad has been stuffed around and has had little chance, if any, to establish himself as a regular test starter in any single position.
Steyn has started 22 tests and been on the bench on 17 other occasions. Of those 22 starts, he has been selected in 5 different positions, making his debut at left wing before playing fullback (12 tests), inside centre (7 tests) flyhalf (1 test) and outside centre (1 test, with a second to come this weekend). Under Jake White, he was regularly selected in the back three at test level in his first year, despite (at that stage) having only played provincial rugby as an inside back for the Sharks. He picked up a few more caps during the regular test season in 2007, all at fullback and reserve, before being thrust into the number 12 jersey at the World Cup following Jean de Villiers’ injury in the opening game.
The dawn of the Peter de Villiers era saw him relegated back to the bench, making only two starts in 2008, at flyhalf and outside centre. 2009 then saw him emerge as the regular fullback both against the Lions and for most the Tri-Nations, apart from two games when he was somewhat bafflingly replaced by Ruan Pienaar. After the successful Tri-Nations campaign last year, he went to France and has, seemingly, only been picked as a last resort ever since and pretty much exclusively at fullback.
A big part of Steyn’s unhappiness seemed to stem from the fact that he felt he was a natural flyhalf, yet found himself shuffled all over the backline, both for the Sharks and the Boks. The record will show, though, that he has seldom really dominated in the number 10 jersey and despite game time at flyhalf being one of the reasons given for his big-money move to France, he features far more regularly in the number 12 and 15 shirts for Racing. Already something of a test veteran – and probably the only man who stands an outside chance of going on to play 150 or more times for his country if he continues to be selected – one would have reasons to argue that if he hasn’t managed to establish himself as a test flyhalf after 40 caps, he’s unlikely to become one in the future. That said, he does possess some rather frightening skills, not the least of which is a frankly massive boot which, while often wayward, is nonetheless extraordinary when he does manage to hit whatever he’s aiming at. While I can’t say I am a big believer in the philosophy of picking a player “just because”, even if he doesn’t fit the game plan or bring something unique to the position he’s being picked in, I also don’t believe in throwing away a 23-year-old with Steyn’s skill set – especially given that he’s already played almost 40 tests. You simply cannot buy that sort of experience.
Unfortunately, it appears as though the war of words between the youngster and the coach is nowhere near at an end – in a surprisingly candid interview with Mike Greenaway of the Mercury this week, Steyn admits that he is tired of all the drama. “It is not my fight. I am a professional rugby player and it is hard enough to focus on doing that job to the best of my ability without getting involved in off-field stuff. How did I get to be here this time? I don’t know, I don’t know anything anymore! They (Saru) spoke to the club, I got a ticket and flew here on Sunday. That is all I know and want to know. I just want to play the game, and to get the green and gold jersey back on is fantastic.” Hardly the words of a player who has been given any sort of clear indication about what the plan is and where he fits in.
Much more concerning is that until Steyn and de Villiers do actually start seeing things eye to eye, it is unlikely that the former will be used as anything other than an emergency stopgap – that is, “utility back” will become his permanent position. We all know that this scenario is definitely NOT what the player wants and probably isn’t something that really suits the team either, since there’s nothing like a good continuous run in a single position to boost form and confidence. My gut feel is that Steyn could develop into a incredibly useful option in either of the centre positions, but given that fullback is the area in which the Springboks are clearly lacking a player of established class, it would make sense for the youngster to be the default selection for the Boks in this position.
It all has to start with somebody – be it the coach or the player – being the bigger man and taking the first step towards resolving the stand-off. With both opting to play the spoiled child card in turns, it’s pretty clear that nobody is going to win, least of all the Springboks.Tweet