Sat, 08 Aug 2020

Boks: The rising importance of Frans Steyn

19 Aug 2019, 22:10 GMT+10

Cape Town - A glance at his game time over the course of the 2019 Test season so far does relatively little to back up the argument with any force.

But it seems increasingly apparent that Frans Steyn - a sometimes controversial, much-debated figure in SA rugby's recent past - will be a vital component of the broad Springbok plans for the looming World Cup.

I know I will consider it a bombshell (my jaw will rapidly drop, whether enforced by explosives or not) if the seasoned figure, who appears to be suitably on-side with Rassie Erasmus's immediate goals for the national side, is omitted from the Bok tournament party of 31 to be revealed next Monday.

Steyn's going to go ... isn't he?

The reason I am so confident he will be on the plane to Japan isn't so much about his value to the "first XV", at least as things stand: he may still not yet be deemed part of that equation, especially with Damian de Allende the reasonably solid top-pick incumbent of the inside centre berth, which is still also Steyn's most ideal station.

But it has everything to do with the re-emerging desirability of the 32-year-old as a versatile backline factor, especially in a group touring a long way from home turf and not necessarily able to summon emergency replacements with any great haste.

Those with slightly more cynical thoughts around the much-travelled but agreeably streetwise customer may point to the limited Bok activity so far in the year that Steyn has had ... and all off the splinters.

It began with 28 minutes as a second-half replacement for Andre Esterhuizen against Australia in Johannesburg, another 25 (on for De Allende) against New Zealand in Wellington, 15 (De Allende again pulled off) against Argentina at Salta, and finally 25 (for Esterhuizen) in the follow-up against the Pumas on Saturday.

So the big unit hasn't even had a full half of action yet.

But he could also be described as some sort of mounting talisman as a Bok reserve, considering that his last seven Test appearances in that capacity have seen the Boks unbeaten (six wins and a draw); the sequence includes three caps in the 3-0 home disposal of France in 2017, when Allister Coetzee was still head coach.

It just seems as if all that experience - nobody else in the Bok ranks at RWC 2019 will boast as much in time-passage terms, considering that Steyn is lone survivor as a 2007 Webb Ellis Cup winner - meaningfully helps the Springboks to nail down matches in their favour at the vital business end of them.

I still suspect there is a chance, in Japan, that he will force his way into the starting mix; he is just too good a rugby player not to push forcefully for that status again, especially if his Test-level conditioning, already improving through lengthy exposure to the Bok camp of late, continues its gradual upward trajectory.

But events at Loftus at the weekend may well have conspired, in many respects, to only underline Steyn's role as a utility presence extraordinaire for South Africa in Japan.

In short, he may be now even more assuring cover for three Bok berths: in midfield (where, at a push, he can even be used at 13), at fullback and flyhalf.

That is because the latter two positions have an increased likelihood of being reasonably economically-staffed from a depth point of view at the tournament, whilst Andre Esterhuizen is at risk of not travelling as immediate understudy to De Allende at No 12.

The Sharks player was commendably rugged against the Pumas in the messy 24-18 weekend victory engineered by a largely second-string Bok line-up, but again more subtle elements were largely absent from his game and Steyn, I fancy, is now the rosier prospect to cover that base behind De Allende.

Meanwhile, Warrick Gelant's up-and-down sort of showing in the last line of defence in Pretoria also raises the possibility that he won't earn a RWC ticket as back-up to Willie le Roux, instead leaving cover there in the shape of Cheslin Kolbe (albeit superb in a wing capacity of late) ... and Steyn.

The last-named player has made 14 starts - among his total of 60 caps - for the country before at No 15, and often with aplomb, even if the most recent was at the now distant 2011 World Cup against Wales in Wellington, and lack of pace these days for the berth would be an issue.

On the plus side, however, his safety and sheer physical presence under a high ball are beyond dispute, and don't forget that penchant for monster relief-kicks or banging over the odd penalty from 55 or even 60 metres out, sometimes clearing the crossbar with plenty to spare.

Then there's the flyhalf cover to consider as well, though: the Boks are expected to take along only two specialists in that massive, tactical string-pulling area of play, Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies, even if both are in reassuringly sprightly form.

But if one of them suddenly went down for any length of time, there's an immediate problem over quantity of back-up.

Once again, Steyn would seem the best temporary figure to plug a hole as he has operated there before for the Boks, either as starter or substitute.

Still want Frans Steyn NOT to make the squad cut, anyone?

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