A risky exit for Steyn

2014-06-13 00:00

CAPE TOWN — Frans Steyn has always been a pretty single-minded character … a bit of a modern-day Michael du Plessis, if you like. They are similar rugby players: versatile, undoubtedly gifted, unpredictable and impulsive.

You could throw in volatility, too, although perhaps Du Plessis was the more inclined to a short fuse — I once saw him fell a tighthead prop with a punch in a club match and be promptly sent for an early shower; Steyn seems that bit more sedate in temperament terms.

Both men arouse strong, conflicting emotions: rugby fans have tended to either love them or hate them, with surprisingly little room for a middle ground.

That they added great value — in the case of Du Plessis, more sporadically because of political circumstance in his 1980s heyday — to the Springbok cause cannot be compellingly disputed.

But as with the long-retired Western Province and Maties-reared flyhalf/centre, should we start talking of Steyn in the past tense now as an international figure as well?

The thought has just crossed my mind in the wake of his extremely sudden exit from the Bok camp, having weirdly played in their least heavyweight of the June assignments against the exaggerated “World XV” but then pulled the plug days before the first of three orthodox Tests in as many weeks.

Make no mistake, the burly Sharks star is tired and you get the feeling that he is fielded every week in 2014 on a wing and a prayer across the playing levels, given the acknowledged chronic knee issue he has.

Of course the injury must have been at least somewhere on his mind as he took his extreme walkout step, but it is educative all the same that he has stated he intends to stay available for the vital Super Rugby run-in by his title-chasing franchise.

Bottom line, I believe: majority public suspicion, whatever the real causes of his quitting the Bok camp, will be that he has placed “club before country”.

It would be deemed less heinous a deed in soccer, where the phenomenon is so rife and well-established and there are altogether more powerful financial considerations at play … but in rugby, if you’re a supposedly active international, you are still expected to be available consistently more than you are not, unless (importantly) by deliberate prior arrangement you have been earmarked for certain matches or tournaments.

Abandoning the cause at indecent notice, which Steyn may be deemed to have done in certain minds, doesn’t exactly make him widespread flavour of the month and will simply fuel the views of those who think he is an unusually spirited chaser of hard currency, wherever on the planet it may lurk.

Just trawling through some of the more sober-minded reader comments traffic on Sport24 on the various “Steyn-gate” stories this week, you sense that the player is earning only around one third of sympathy … perhaps at best.

That said, never forget that it is a rugby player’s right to make the very most of what can become a precarious career in the space of one awkward tackle or sickening slip on a treacherous surface.

Whatever the real reasons for Steyn tossing his curveball — and they seem to be starting to seep out — his vacating of likely number 12 duty against Wales may well have simultaneously undermined his quest to settle at inside centre for the green-and-gold cause.

My view is that the position remains his most suitable stationing for South Africa, even given the options he can present elsewhere on the park.

Fullback? That is looking more and more the preserve of the swifter Willie le Roux, who has such a Midas touch on attack and is spiritedly improving his defensive aspects. Flyhalf? Some critics feel Steyn is too cumbersome for it, and I am a bit inclined to concur. Outside centre? He is not explosive enough for it.

So his muscularity, ruggedness and tactical instincts are best exploited at 12, and if he had continued to shine there for the Boks in the remainder of June, there’d have been a case for captain Jean de Villiers (once fit again) operating outside him at No 13 in future, highest-tier international combat.

It has happened fruitfully before in Heyneke Meyer’s tenure as coach.

Make no mistake, Meyer is not about to put De Villiers, who still prefers number 12 himself, out to pasture either as skipper or player, something he keenly stressed in conversation with this writer very recently, “It’s a huge setback not having him [at the moment] … The whole culture, the way he works with the players as a whole is unbelievable.

“He’s an unbelievable ambassador on and off the field, so it’s not the way you want to start your Test season. I truly believe we can [get him through to another World Cup at the end of next year] as long as we all manage him well.

“Jean will have a very important role in trying to win the World Cup, not just through his captaincy but because he was our player of the year in 2013. He was amazing ... If you look at all our best tries, he was involved in most of them.”

Look, just as bridges can be burned, so they can be repaired, and all sorts of developments are possible in the Frans Steyn saga ahead of both RWC 2015 and 2019 — I wouldn’t write off any extremity in outcome!

A lurking thought I have right now, however, is that the player has done himself few favours in the public eye and even more importantly in his relations with key national coaching personnel and administrators, even as careful diplomacy all-round has initially followed his move.

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