Steyn expected to make his mark again

Wed, Nov 25, 2009, 00:00

THE COMPARISONS between Jonathan Sexton and Morn Steyn are obvious. The Springbok 10 is a little further on in the development stakes but progression in to their respective international outhalf roles have been equally irresistible.

World Cup-winning outhalf Butch James left a vacuum when joining Bath in late 2007. South African coach Peter De Villiers made no secret of his preference for utility back Ruan Pienaar as James’s successor, despite Steyn’s excellence throughout the Blue Bulls’ run to the Super 14 title.

De Villiers was forced into a switch in the first Test against the Lions and again on the hour-mark of the second Test after Pienaar’s kicking game disintegrated. Steyn came into the pressure-cooker environment to land two conversions and two penalties including the mammoth 51-metre strike in injury-time that decided the series.

All doubters, and they seemed to only be amongst the Springbok coaching ticket, were silenced by a record tally against New Zealand during the Tri-Nations when Steyn scored every South African point in the 31-19 victory. This included a clever try that showed there was more to the man than just a Northern Hemisphere-type outhalf, as he was described yesterday.

Granted, he is no Henry Honiball or James but the boot of Steyn is deadly accurate, be it kicking from hand or placed balls, to such an extent that older rugby folk will conjure up memories of the great Naas Botha.

A 24-point haul followed against Australia in August and his proficiency to nail long-range drop goals was evident throughout the Super 14 (he landed a record 11, four in one match) but the windy Northern Hemisphere conditions have asked deeper questions of his game. The Toulouse experience was every kickers nightmare and against Italy he finally struggled from placed ball.

Last Sunday the Springboks shuffled through a gale on the Dublin airport runway. “Ya, me and Fourie (du Preez) walked together off the plane. We just looked at each other and looked to the forwards; we are going to have to keep the ball a bit more if the wind is blowing like that.”

On Monday, with Pienaar, they tested the unpredictable swirl in the confines of St Michael’s College, just down the road from their Burlington Hotel base. “On Thursday we are going to the venue where we are playing. They are not the easiest conditions to kick in but we can’t control it,” said Steyn.

Maybe it is just the insular way of touring teams but the Springboks know very little of the environment they have landed in. The venue is Croke Park. The selection of Sexton yesterday caught them unawares. Neither South African halfback has ever seen him play. The Fijian tape will be analysed today. They may even pull up some of last season’s Leinster heroics.

When you ask about players to watch they inevitably mention Brian O’Driscoll – and the passion. And, of course, the spirit. Always the passion and spirit of the Irish.

For all Steyn’s excellence in breaking on to the world stage it helps when the greatest scrumhalf playing the game right now is helping in the decision-making process. “To play with (Fourie du Preez) at the Bulls and the Boks makes it so much easier for me. I know he is going to make the right decision 90 per cent of the time.”

Du Preez spoke of Steyn’s remarkable composure yesterday, prompting the media to query his thought process before slotting that penalty against the Lions at Loftus Versfeld. “I was actually quite calm. That’s why you put in the hard work on the practice field, to get moments like that. Luckily I slotted it over on my home ground. I’m used to that field. As we got that penalty I knew it was in my veins and I could do it. Luckily, John (Smit) gave the ball to me and not to Frans Steyn – because of the distance. As soon as we got the penalty I walked up him (Smit). I was looking forward to the kick.”

The Springboks announce their team tomorrow. Whispers around the squad point towards Smit switching back to hooker – as he did so well against Italy – with the confrontational Bismarck du Plessis benched and Ulster’s BJ Botha coming in at tighthead prop. This means Munster’s cover for Marcus Horan, Wian du Preez, would join Leinster’s CJ van der Linde on the bench as De Villiers goes for a five, two split of forwards to backs.

Despite his first dodgy kicking display against Italy last weekend, Steyn is expected to play a crucial role in the Springboks’ last game of an unforgettable year.

MORNE STEYN

Position: Outhalf

Height: 1.86m.

Weight: 82 kg.

Age: 25.

Caps: 11 (132 points the fastest ever 100 points, in eight Tests, by a Springbok)

Super 14: Blue Bulls