When former French player Thomas Castaignède wrote of Frans Steyn that “the rugby gods must have been overlooking his cot when he was born”, he was practically squinting into the bright future he imagined the then 20-year-old would have in the game.
Twelve years later, Steyn has a World Cup winner’s medal from 2007; should be set for life from spending most of the past decade playing in France; and, before yesterday’s test against the All Blacks, had accumulated 57 Springbok test caps.
On the face of it, Steyn’s career is one most players starting out would kill for. But given the extravagance of the gifts spotted by Castaignède – who himself was stalked by the faint whiff of underachievement throughout his career – Steyn has not nearly fulfilled his promise.
In fact, the only reason we’re talking about the 32-year-old is because he is on his umpteenth Springbok chance, thanks to a dearth of inside centres as South Africa prepares itself for another tilt at the World Cup windmill in Japan.
To plug the one obvious leak in his team, Springbok director of rugby and head coach Rassie Erasmus has called on Steyn pretty much like every other national team coach before him. The way Steyn’s last chance has been received has been typically South African in its (mostly racial) division.
While everyone agrees that the outrageous nature of the Bethlehem native’s talent should have turned water to champers career-wise, the white faction of the rugby public has welcomed him back with open arms (again), but the game’s black fans have been less than fulsome in their embrace.
Much like Erasmus, the white fans are hoping Steyn can combine those famous blockbuster physical attributes and a mind almost made exclusively for big matches to help the Boks win their first World Cup since he was instrumental in helping them win it 12 years ago.
The reasons those hopes spring eternal are the long-range penalty he nailed in the 2007 World Cup final while his elders were debating whether to go for the touchline or posts; the 60m monster he scored in the effective Tri-Nations final in 2009 in Hamilton; and those trademark drop goals from the parking lot.
Those very same highlights are responsible for the suspicion around Steyn’s career when it comes to the rest South Africa’s rugby fans.
If we’re being honest, said career has been built almost entirely on glimpses of what he can do instead of him consistently doing it.
Added to the fact that, from a young age, he’s always played his rugby with a frown on his face, not always been in the right physical condition and had numerous spats with the powers that be that ended up with his leaving the Bok team in a huff, one wonders how so much faith has been put in such a temperamental soul.
A glimpse of the answer on why Erasmus is gambling on Steyn again was his press conference performance after the game in Australia last weekend.
Steyn, a once-in-a-generation talent, looked like a man at one with his mortality, showed little of the entitlement one would expect of him, and – perhaps most importantly – admitted there may have been some “screw ups” on his part in how his career has gone.
Judging by his raw honesty in that interview, the penny has finally dropped with Steyn – he understands that his career has meandered along and this is his last chance to justify his immense ability.
Don’t take my word for it, but Steyn may well be the readiest he’s ever been to help the Boks win a World Cup. Well, if he gives himself a chance to get picked by getting his conditioning right.