No mourning over Morne
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer's decision to drop Morne Steyn from the national side was long overdue and may herald a bold new era for the team.
The rumour started circulating a week ago, but its veracity was confirmed only at lunchtime on Wednesday. Meyer had dropped Steyn. Moreover, he had called up Elton Jantjies and reunited the lock combination of Andries Bekker and Eben Etzebeth. All this for a Test match at Loftus Versfeld, the home of the Blue Bulls. It is easy to imagine the sleepless nights for Meyer that led up to the announcement.
It is a fallacy to suggest that Steyn has been a permanent fixture in the Springbok side for three years. It is actually just 13 months since he was benched in favour of Butch James for last year's Tri-Nations Test against Australia in Durban. He was also moved to fullback to accommodate Pat Lambie against the All Blacks in Wellington in June last year, after he played musical chairs with Ruan Pienaar for a few games back in 2009.
But the fact of the matter is that Steyn has repelled all comers in the 42 Tests since he made his debut against the British and Irish Lions in 2009. A myth arose, fostered by Meyer and his predecessor Peter de Villiers, that Steyn was some kind of magic talisman. Yet the fact is that South Africa lost with alarming frequency during Steyn's reign. The record reads: won 24, lost 16, drawn two.
For test after test, the public asked what the Bulls pivot was doing in the side and for test after test the two coaches defended him. There have been times in the past when picking a one-dimensional flyhalf was the only option available to a Springbok coach, but in the past three years the likes of James, Pienaar, Lambie, Jantjies and Frans Steyn were all available.
Now Meyer has selected a team without Morné Steyn, but with new kid on the block Johan Goosen at flyhalf and with Jantjies and Lambie on the bench. He has grasped the nettle for a Test against Australia at Loftus and we are entitled to ask whether this is a brief hiatus or a new beginning.
It is, in fact, 15 years since the same venue and opposition ushered in what was, statistically at least, the most successful period in Springbok history. Loftus in 1997 was Carel du Plessis's last game as Springbok coach and he said goodbye with a 61-22 demolition of the Wallabies. His successor, Nick Mallett, won his first 16 games as coach and came within an ace of defending the world title won by Kitch Christie's team at the 1995 World Cup.
It was a time when Christie's stalwarts were slowly being phased out and bright new talents were being stirred into the mix. Loftus was Rassie Erasmus' second Test, Percy Montgomery's fourth and Krynauw Otto's sixth. Alongside them were half a dozen World Cup winners: Os du Randt, Naka Drotske, Mark Andrews, Ruben Kruger, Joost van der Westhuizen and James Small. At flyhalf was a young Free Stater who would play a significant role at the 1999 World Cup: Jannie de Beer.
It may be tempting fate, but there are five World Cup winners in this Saturday's team and a young flyhalf from Free State with an educated boot. Eben Etzebeth is winning his seventh cap and if either gets game time, Jantjies and Jaco Taute will be making their debuts. This will be the sixth Test between the countries at Loftus and South Africa have never lost.
The point to be made is this: Meyer has spent seven Test matches dithering because his flyhalf was stopping the ball. Now, on a fast Highveld pitch with a tyro whom many believe could be great in the number 10 jersey and several gifted youngsters, the coach has the tools to begin a bold new era.
That said, the team remains a work in progress. The back row is a source of concern, with three players who are too similar lumped together. It would be improved by having Marcel Coetzee in the starting line up and Willem Alberts on the bench. It would be even better if Heinrich Brussow played instead of Francois Louw, but if the coach can concede defeat on Steyn, he can surely relent on his stubborn ostracising of the Free Stater sooner rather than later.
If Frans Steyn fails his fitness test at the captain's run on Friday, Taute will start at 13 and the captain, Jean de Villiers, will reclaim his rightful place at inside centre. Straight away, the midfield will have more balance. In the second half, we could have the tempting scenario of Jantjies at flyhalf, Taute in the midfield and Lambie at fullback. Jantjies is the old man of the trio; he turned 22 last month.
It has never been a case of lack of talent. Meyer is the envy of the world for the resources he has at his disposal. Now he needs to step outside his comfort zone and embrace a new tactical approach. He should do away with the robotic kicking for territory and turnover ball and exploit the extravagant handling skills of his back line.
Most importantly he should watch the video of South Africa 61, Australia 22 from 1997 and dream of a future when no one asks the question: "Why did you pick Morné Steyn?"