Bok to the future with stars of 2007
Frans Steyn tops the list of World Cup winners who are getting back to their best in Super Rugby this season.
When John Smit and Jake White were reunited at the Sharks late last year, it was inevitable that people would start talking about the 2007 World Cup. There have been times over the six and a half years when the tournament seemed like ancient history but right now Super Rugby is conspiring to make it all seem as though it only happened yesterday.
Victor Matfield, the man of the match in the 2007 final, has moved seamlessly back into the Bulls' starting XV after a two-year hiatus. Matfield, who will turn 37 in May, is making a compelling case for a recall to the national team. Meanwhile Bakkies Botha, Matfield's long-time partner at both provincial and Test level, has already returned to prominence, touring Europe with the Springboks at the end of 2013.
If Matfield and Botha are part of Heyneke Meyer's plans this season, it is likely they will be joined in the Bok squad by another rejuvenated player, Frans Steyn of the Sharks. Steyn was moved from 12 to 10 by White on the morning of the Sharks' match against the Lions last week and produced a man-of-the-match performance.
In 2007, Steyn was 19 and destined to play only a minor role at the World Cup but Jean de Villiers tore a bicep in the opening game against Samoa. The outrageously talented Steyn adapted so quickly to the inside centre position that arguments raging at the time over whether he was a wing, a fullback or a flyhalf were promptly shelved.
Ironically, at the next World Cup, it was Steyn who picked up a tournament-ending injury against Samoa, damaging his shoulder in the Boks' final pool match. Steyn was playing 12 that day, thereby relegating De Villiers to the bench and, before the injury, it could easily have been assumed that Peter de Villiers's selection marked the way forward for the national side. How wrong we were.
Brilliant but lazy
In fact, Steyn returned to club rugby in France with Racing Metro, put on weight and gained a reputation for being brilliant but lazy. De Villiers, by contrast, assumed the captaincy of the Springboks and entered the Indian summer of a remarkable career. On Saturday in Hamilton, he will win his 100th Super Rugby cap.
Running out alongside De Villiers against the Chiefs will be another rejuvenated 2007 Cup winner, Schalk Burger. The Stormers flanker was immense against the Crusaders and, if he maintains such form, an international recall is inevitable. De Villiers and Burger both played in the South African Under 21 side that won the International Rugby Board World Championship in 2002. The coach of that side was Jake White, which brings us rather neatly back to the present.
White has shown immense loyalty over the years to players he has known and coached as youngsters. Smit, for instance, was his captain at the Under 21 World Championships of 1999, while those who played in the class of 2002 included Fourie du Preez, Juan Smith, Gurthro Steenkamp and Ricky Januarie, as well as Burger and De Villiers.
The rejuvenation of Steyn could be directly related to the former Bok coach and seems to have begun the moment that White joined the Sharks midway through last year. After an operation in May, Steyn was expected to miss the rest of the 2013 season but White persuaded him to get back into training in time for the Currie Cup semifinals and final.
The Sharks won both games and then Steyn went back under the knife for a minor procedure that precluded him from touring with the Boks. It became clear during preseason training that there was new purpose to Steyn's rugby career. Gone were the rolls of fat around the midriff that caused his weight to balloon to 111kg. Gone too was the lackadaisical manner that has accompanied him since his schooldays.
White is a hard taskmaster and, like Kitch Christie before him, believes fervently that sporting success is directly linked to physical fitness. Some have accused him of tunnel vision and one Sharks player was nearly shown the door earlier this year when he turned up for training with a surfboard under his arm. The coach's reasoning was that the player was more concerned about what he was doing after training than during it.
White's methods may not be everyone's cup of tea but they obviously work with Steyn, a remarkable physical specimen with talent oozing out of every pore. In another era, he might have played lock or flank; he is, for instance, taller and heavier than either Philip Nel or Frik du Preez.
It is, therefore, to the great good fortune of both the Sharks and South Africa that Steyn can play almost anywhere in the back line. On Saturday, it happened to be at flyhalf, thanks to the indisposition of Pat Lambie.
The added bonus for the Sharks was that Steyn brought his kicking boots with him and succeeded with seven out of seven.
It is frequently remarked that Steyn's phenomenal distance is what marks out his kicking but that's not much use without accuracy. Kicking guru Braam van Straaten has even suggested that Steyn could add 10m or 15m to his kicks if he spent more time honing his technique. If Van Straaten is correct, that would have Steyn knocking them over from his own 22, which might seem just a tad unfair.