Morne Steyn is a kicking machine. There. I’ve said it. It catches like bile in the back of my throat but there is no denying the man’s skill when it comes to slotting the oval ball through those poles. He’s a points man. The one you know is going to make the difference in a tight game when the whistle is being blown for just looking at the ref sideways. He’s not perfect (in fact, if you read “Who has the golden boots” you’ll come to the conclusion that he’s actually quite far from it) but he’s dependable. Reliable. A stalwart. A must-have.
But (yes, you knew it was coming) is he REALLY the best flyhalf in South Africa. Or anywhere else, for that matter. The fact that Steyn is a game-winner cannot be denied, but take away that prodigious boot and what do we actually have? A running flyhalf turned into an automaton by the legendary Blue Bulls production line? Or someone who has so seamlessly fitted in with the style of rugby we are so used to playing in South Africa that he has become part of the very fabric of the game? It’s easy to diss him (I know, because I’ve done it on more than one occasion!) but actually, it’s not his fault that he’s extraordinarily good at the one thing we all use as a benchmark for brilliance – kicking.
The problem for Steyn is not that he is one dimensional, but that he is required to be. There’s no denying the Bulls “way” of doing things gets results. The game plan is quite often flawless, and ensures that Steyn shines by doing the one thing he does better than most, kicking where he’s required to kick, accurately, consistently and on demand. And there’s the rub, the major flaw of having Steyn in the number 10 shirt. It’s called predictability.
Everyone knows what he’s there to do, and when and where he’s going to do it. He’s done the drills to infinity and beyond, which makes him perhaps the most easily read rugby player in the world. Which is fine when you have him surrounded by forwards who are just going to bliksem everyone in their path, and backs who know that they must compensate for the fact that at the breakdown he’s not going to be making any telling tackles. But take him out of that comfort zone and what do you have? A liability, some would say. An average Joe. A kicker and very little else.
But for most that’s enough. Because kicking is lekker. It’s what we are known for. And an integral part of our rugby tradition. Hang on though… Wait just a mo… Is it? Really? Yes. I know about Naas. We don’t need to examine his legacy, or his contribution. But in between Naas and Morne, who have we had who we can honestly say had truly incredible “golden” boots? We certainly didn’t win the 1995 RWC with a kicking machine, but it was a well-taken, tactical kick that clinched us the title (thanks Joel). We didn’t have a flyhalf with a 100% kicking average in 2007 either. Butch is a well-rounded flyhalf… Ditto Andre Pretorius. Neither could be compared to Steyn or dubbed kicking immortals. In fact, our kicking gods in 2007, or the nearest we had to them, were Percy Montgomery and Frans Steyn, both fullbacks. In between there’s been Henri Honiball, Jannie de Beer, Derick Hougaard… Great flyhalves but did they kick like Morne?
The sad fact is that we, as a nation of rugby supporters, have become far too invested in our love of kicking, to the absolute exclusion of anything else. And thanks to Morne, gawd bless him, we now expect every man who pulls on the No 10 Bok jersey to slot them just like he does. Anything less is just not good enough. Johan Goosen, currently out with a nasty injury, has been judged largely on his kicking game. Likewise Elton Jantjies. Repeat ad nauseum for Peter Grant and the darling of the Sharks, “Super” Pat Lambie. Miss a shot at poles and you’re likely to be slated by every man, woman and dog this side of Ysterfontein and as far afield as Hotazel. Never mind the other skills in your arsenal.
Isn’t it time that we, as rugby fans, started to kick this habit of ours? Our Springbok coach, Heyneke Meyer, said at a press briefing earlier this week that he is tired of seeing balls being kicked for no apparent purpose or design, purely for the sake of hoisting one up into the blue yonder. The tactics of kicking are paramount to good rugby and a good tactical kicker is worth far more than an automaton who can nail the posts from any angle inside the enemy half. Meyer is tired of seeing teams kick away possession needlessly without any plan to regain either ground or that possession. So, I suspect, is half the country. If not the rugby playing world.
Meyer also thinks that Morne is a great tactical kicker. Perhaps he is. Or perhaps he’s just following a good tactical game plan (and I’m inclined to go with the latter, with all due respect to our Bok coach, because of the enormous input he’s had in that game plan). But that doesn’t make him a great tactician. Which he isn’t. Sorry to burst any bubbles, but that’s just the way it is. So. At some stage Meyer and his Bok aides de camp have got to kick their habit too, and look beyond that one dimension to a flyhalf who offers proven tactical skills, leadership qualities (because the Boks are definitely in need of few options where a long-term captain is concerned) and the ability to read a game while standing on his head and facing north (the ability to set up tries and slot conversions while concussed could also come in handy!)
Yes. I know I’m as predictable as Morne. And I know everyone (me included) wants to see young Mr Lambie have a blinder against the Stormers at fullback and get to wear the Green and Gold yet again next month in any position Meyer deems fit to play him in. But I still feel down to the marrow in my bones that he’s a flyhalf. Not a fullback. He’s not a perfect flyhalf, I’ll warrant you. Yet. But given the chance he will most definitely become one. A world-beating one. A champion one. A record-book one. Even a kicking one. Let’s just hope he gets that chance. Sooner, rather than later.