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BOK MILESTONE

Ageless Frans Steyn to reach one-and-a-half decades as a Test player against Scotland

Frans Steyn of South Africa during the 2021 Castle Lager Outgoing Tour match between Wales and South Africa at Principality Stadium on November 06, 2021 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images)
By Craig Ray
09 Nov 2021 2

The 34-year-old will mark a 15-year Test career when he takes the field for the Springboks against the Scots at Murrayfield on Saturday.

Frans Steyn will become the first South African player to compete in Test rugby for 15 years when he comes off the bench against Scotland on 13 November.

The 34-year-old began his Test career a decade-and-a-half ago as a teenager, starting on the wing and scoring a try against Ireland at the old Lansdowne Road in 2006. Last week he won the man of the match award against Wales in Cardiff.

He was already the longest-serving Springbok of all time, edging out former lock Victor Matfield, but he is the first to breach the 15-year barrier.

Fifteen years might have passed between his promising debut in a losing cause and his match-winning performance versus Wales, which included a signature 54-metre penalty at the Principality Stadium last week, but his positive impact has never changed.

In all Steyn has played 72 Tests and the Boks have won 55 of them, which is a 76% winning ratio. The Springboks’ historical winning ratio is 64% while only James Dalton (81%) and Gurthro Steenkamp (77%) have a higher winning percentage of players who have featured in 30 or more Tests.

“Steyn was a revelation on that tour (in 2006),” former Bok coach Jake White wrote in his autobiography about Steyn’s first tour. “I didn’t know a great deal about him, but I’d watched him play in the Currie Cup and saw something special. I wasn’t alone.”

Francois Steyn of South Africa goes through to score during the International Test between Ireland and South Africa at Lansdowne Road on November 11, 2006 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo: Tertius Pickard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The following season, in only his seventh Test, the then 20-year-old Steyn came off the bench to slot two, long-range drop-goals to steer the Boks to a 22-19 win over Australia at Newlands. It was a remarkable display of technique and composure for such a young player, and it was also a sign of his youthful exuberance.

Those two drop-kicks were not part of the game plan, well, not exactly. But White understood that he had a rare talent on his hands and that sometimes it needed to be allowed to express itself in mercurial ways. “He wasn’t under instruction, he just read the play and went for it,” White recalled.

After the match, a stunned Wallaby captain Stirling Mortlock used dark humour to make sense of the situation. “What are you saying mate? That we’re karmically balanced now?” That was in response to being quizzed about whether he felt Steyn’s drop-goals had atoned for Stephen Larkham’s wobbly 1999 World Cup semi-final drop goal in extra time that nudged Australia ahead.

Vast experience

Last week against Wales, Steyn, heavier, and more worldly, gave another brilliant performance off the bench. It was a continuation of the form he showed against the All Blacks in September, which also played a significant role in the Boks winning one of two clashes between the old foes.

It’s easy to forget that he played a key role in the 2007 World Cup campaign, having to play inside centre for most of the tournament after Jean de Villiers was injured in the opening game.

Steyn played like a veteran in terms of his decision-making and composure, but with the athleticism of a 20-year-old at the peak of his powers.

In the week leading up to the 2007 final against England, White recalled that while the rest of the team was gradually becoming tenser as the big day drew closer, Steyn carried on as if he was about to compete in a schoolboy match.

“The only player who didn’t seem wracked with pre-match nerves was Frans Steyn,” White wrote. “He runs around the practice field and drop-kicks; he’s like a kid on the playground. As a 20-year-old he didn’t seem to grasp the enormity and significance of what we’d achieved by making the final.

“And bless him for it. I hope he stays that way for the rest of his career, because it’s a rare player who is able to put his head down without nerves getting the better of him.”

White’s observations were prescient because Steyn went on to play key roles in beating the British & Irish Lions in 2009 and was again a key contributor to the Boks 2019 World Cup success.

Francois Steyn attends the captain’s run at Landsdown Road on November 10, 2006 in Dublin, Ireland. South Africa faced Ireland at Lansdowne Road on November 11. (Photo by Tertius Pickard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

He continues to mentor younger players while delivering polished performances when required at Test level. He still plays without obvious pressure. The Bok coaches would like to see him in the squad for Rugby World Cup 2023 in France, when Steyn will be 36.

“Playing international rugby for 15 years is an extraordinary achievement and what makes this feat even more remarkable is that Frans continues to show his class despite being at the twilight of his career,” said Bok head coach Jacques Nienaber.

“His influence is equally valuable off the field and it is fantastic to have a player of his calibre guide the young players in the squad.

“Frans is the older established guy, who we can fall back on. His experience and ability off the bench allows us to give some of the younger players experience, knowing we have him to call on.

“To sum up his contribution: he has a great mindset because he buys into the vision we have. Before the second Test against the All Blacks, he only played 186 minutes in the previous 10 Tests. It’s hard on him because he is a competitive guy, but he never complains and continues to have a great attitude.

“Secondly, he is a hard worker, who never misses a training session, despite limited playing opportunities and thirdly, he is a brilliant rugby player.”

Staying in the now

For Steyn himself, he’s not peering over the horizon, but rather accepting each weekly challenge as it comes. Which shows that he has gained some wisdom over the years.

Steyn has ‘only’ earned 72 caps over those 15 years. Since Steyn made his senior international debut the Boks have played 177 Tests, meaning he has missed 105 of them in a period when he has been an active player.

The reasons he has played relatively few Tests despite a long career is a combination of several factors. Serious injuries, moving to continue his career in France when overseas-based players were not easily selected, a serious dispute with SA Rugby in 2014 and not always having the full backing of White’s successors Peter de Villiers and Heyneke Meyer, have all cost him time away from the international arena.

In 2014 Steyn withdrew from the Bok squad while in camp over a dispute about image rights payments.

His image at the time was owned by a third party, who ‘bought’ them when he joined French club Racing Metro in 2009 — a standard practice for high-profile sports stars.

When Steyn returned to South Africa in 2012, he was awarded a Springbok contract with a specific understanding that the use of his image rights would take place under licence from the third party. 

Payments were to be made separately and directly to the party by Saru, At the time of Steyn’s walkout, those payments had not been honoured. The issue was eventually resolved but it caused a rift between Steyn and Bok coach Meyer.

Although it was a bold move, as players had never walked away from the Boks, and certainly never over a payment dispute it was one that left Meyer unhappy. It would influence Meyer’s selection of Steyn the following year. Steyn was omitted from the RWC 2015 squad as his relationship with the coach had never fully healed.

He did not play a Test for almost five years between 2012 and 2017, but returned when Allister Coetzee selected him for the three-Test series against France in June 2017. He featured in each of the victorious Tests but then endured almost another two years in the wilderness before being recalled by Rassie Erasmus.

Since that return, in June 2019 against Australia, Steyn has played 16 Tests before this weekend and only been on the losing side once — against the All Blacks in Townsville earlier this year.

Frans Steyn of South Africa during the 2021 Castle Lager Outgoing Tour match between Wales and South Africa at Principality Stadium on November 6, 2021 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images)

“This could be my last Test, and that’s the way I think about it,” Steyn said after the Wales match last week. I’m just using my opportunity and this could be the last game that I play for the Springboks, you never know.

“There is a lot of talent with (Aphelele) Fassi and all of them, really good players who are looking to come through. I’m just enjoying my time.

“I don’t have any regrets, so there is nothing to tell him,” said Steyn.

“There was maybe a lot of screw-ups in my younger days, but rugby is a weird sport and rugby can go either way. Next week a guy can have a shocker again, and that’s the way rugby works.

“You can’t always be high.”

Boks make two changes for Scotland clash

Franco Mostert and Jesse Kriel will earn their 50th Test caps when the Springboks line up against Scotland in Edinburgh on Saturday as Elton Jantjies and Willie le Roux return to the starting team, while Frans Steyn is in line to set a new South African record for the longest international rugby career.

Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber made two rotational switches and one injury-enforced change to the starting side that defeated Wales 23-18. Mostert comes in at lock and Elton Jantjies earns a run at flyhalf, with both Lood de Jager and Handré Pollard moving to the replacements bench.

Le Roux has been named to take over at fullback from Damian Willemse, who has to follow concussion return to play protocols after taking a knock to the head last week.

“Scotland will be a force to be reckoned with at Murrayfield, so it was important for us to maintain continuity within our squad, while at the same time celebrating Jesse and Franco’s 50th caps and giving Elton a chance to start,” said Nienaber.

“Elton has been training very well since the squad assembled before the Lions Series and he’s performed well every time he earned a run, so we thought it was the right time to hand him a start.

“It will be a special day for Jesse and Franco as they run out for their 50th Tests at Murrayfield. They are both fantastic servants of the game and their high work ethic and true team attitude make them vital members of our squad, and we are all delighted to see them achieve this feat.”

The 27-year-old Kriel made his Test debut against Argentina in 2015, but Mostert, who turns 31 at the end of the month, had to wait a year longer for his first cap, which was against Ireland in 2016.

The Springboks may have only suffered two defeats against Scotland at Murrayfield since 1994 (in 2002 and 2010), but with the home side coming off a morale-boosting victory against Australia last weekend, and wins against England, France and Italy in the 2021 Six Nations, Nienaber expected a hard grind of a Test. 

South Africa

15 Willie le Roux, 14 Jesse Kriel, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Kwagga Smith, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Ox Nche

Reserves: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Jasper Wiese, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Handre Pollard, 23 Frans Steyn. DM

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  • Pity, he should have started on Saturday. He deserves to.
    Frans was never treated well by the selectors. Imagine they had actually utilised him all those years, instead of messing him about.
    But good on you, Frans!