Morné Steyn pays quite a costly price

2014-09-11 00:00

CAPE TOWN — At this stage only Heyneke Meyer and his trustiest lieutenants may really know whether Morné Steyn has been banished to a potentially lasting Test-level cold shoulder, or simply been made to pay a brutal, short-term price for his costly Perth faux pas.

But there is justifiable reason for both theories to come under the public microscope as the Springbok coach acted quickly, decisively and with an element of surprise in ditching the 59-cap stalwart so all-embracingly from the Rugby Championship match-day plans against New Zealand in Wellington on Saturday.

It’s been a veritable see-saw situation regarding the Bok flyhalf spot on the Australasian leg of this year’s competition, with the much more wet-behind-the-ears Handré Pollard, like Steyn, dropped altogether ahead of the ill-fated Wallaby clash, and now his start-out replacement similarly not even managing a spot among the substitutes a week on.

The one area of “stability” is in the presence each time of the still rusty, game-lacking Pat Lambie as the back-up number 10 in the match-day mix.

So where does this leave both Pollard and Steyn?

Neither can be blamed if he’s feeling more than a tad insecure: the former for the suddenness of his return, straight into his most acid examination yet, and the latter for the unceremonious way he was consigned to blazer-only status somewhere in the “Cake Tin” stands on Saturday.

It is impossible to escape a suspicion that Steyn might well have survived for the All Blacks clash had he not been guilty of that dreadful failure to find touch from a hard-won penalty late in the Aussie game, and then erred further by under-cooking the last-chance-saloon kick-off after the killer Wallaby try.

His goal-kicking in a tight Test — which South Africa had seemingly done enough to win — had been crucially near-faultless up to then, even if eternal doubts about his more general game would have lingered.

Such are the cruel, tight margins in sport, both for teams and individuals who may misfire at critical times.

But by elbowing him right out of the Saturday squad, at a venue where rain and high wind are notorious for their intrusion, has Meyer drawn a permanent line on Steyn? Has the 30-year-old blown it completely, in his mind?

After all, the coach has traditionally tended to favour him for biggest games, and the former Bulls blue-eyed boy was also the flyhalf when the Boks last beat the New Zealanders, at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in August 2011 — he contributed all the SA points (five penalties and a dropped goal) in an 18-5 victory.

Just maybe, Meyer has taken a step laced more with compassion than censure by cutting Steyn so violently from Saturday’s arsenal: the player may be notably, mentally fragile after his unusual bout of “brain flatulence” against the delighted, gap-seizing Australians.

Then again, shouldn’t so seasoned a Test figure be able to pull himself back together suitably for another challenge a week ahead; be motivated overwhelmingly by a wish for atonement?

Whatever the case, the current selection volatility in the key number 10 berth doesn’t strike one as especially constructive to the greater Bok cause.

It is hard to believe Pollard has been rushed back because the visitors are going to try to surprise the seldom gullible All Blacks with a marked, running game.

He is a gifted and versatile pivot with the potential to adjust — better than the more formulaic Steyn, frankly — to any game-plan on a given day, and a personal belief is that his likelier stoutness on defence and in attacking the gain-line when warranted may have been key considerations for this weekend.

There is also a good case for saying that Pollard, warts and all at the tender age of 20, didn’t deserve to be demoted anyway after the narrow pair of victories over Argentina, where a painfully retreating Bok scrum would have made life in his channel a nightmare at times for anyone.

It is a hard-to-dispute reality, too, that Bok efficiency at number 10 is being hampered of late by glaring mediocrity in the scrumhalf slot — some critics are within their rights to wonder whether it is there that a shake-up should have occurred instead for Saturday’s crunch.

The answer to Morné Steyn’s continued presence or otherwise in the Bok set-up may well lie in the weight of Pollard’s performance in Wellington.

If he excels on this intensely high-pressure stage, his chances of being the favoured number ten right through to the 2015 World Cup, with little or no further tampering to the position en route, will only have soared.

But if he only demonstrates his naivety, Steyn’s absence this weekend may yet come to be assessed as a visit to the headmaster’s office, as it were, for a few sharp lashes with the cane and then a return to better favour from the big guy.

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