At Kings Park on Saturday two players will wear the No?12 on their jerseys and face each other as direct opponents. In the Chiefs corner, Sonny Bill Williams; in the Sharks corner, Francois Steyn. The latter won the World Cup with South Africa in 2007, the former with New Zealand in 2011. Both are regarded as outrageous talents and have many things in common, but in point of fact it would be hard to conceive of a greater contrast in professional rugby union.
Steyn is the wild child, all unruly hair and a waistline that expands and contracts depending on the time of year. Williams is the epitome of the modern businessperson for whom a rugby field is an office. This is not to say that he does not have a wild side, having as recently as January 31 extended his professional boxing career to seven wins from seven starts. He has, in the past, been arrested for drunk driving and caught in a “compromising position” with an Australian model. Williams is no angel, but he has the respect of his employers and his peers.
If only that were the case with Steyn. Last year the former Grey College schoolboy walked away from the Springboks over a pay dispute. He then signed to play for Toshiba Brave Lupus in Japan and recently rejoined the Sharks, shortly after the start of the Super Rugby season. Steyn believes he will not play again at international level. Last week he told Rapport: “It’s always a privilege to play for the Boks. However, when I moved to Japan I accepted that my days in a Springbok jersey were finally behind me. I have made peace with it.”
If Steyn was the wrong side of 30 such musings might be understandable, but the man is just 27 years old. He has 53 Springbok caps and is capable of things that other South African players are not.
Devoid of emotion
Towards the end of his Springbok career Steyn became famous for kicking 60m-plus penalties. Playing for Racing Metro in France a few years ago he dropped a goal from 70m. And yet he dislikes the current set-up at the South African Rugby Union too much to attempt any bridge-building. The feeling, it seems, is mutual.
Sonny Bill Williams. (Getty)
Contrast that with Williams, whose relationship with the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) is apparently devoid of emotion. A rugby league player all his life, Williams signed to play union with Toulon in 2008. With the stated aim of wanting to compete at the 2011 World Cup he left France and signed with Canterbury in 2010. The NZRU immediately rushed him into the All Blacks set-up.
He duly earned a World Cup winners medal, played one more season of union and then returned to 13-a-side with the Sydney Roosters. In one giddy 18-month period Williams won a Super Rugby title with the Chiefs, played a starring role for the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship, moved to Japan to play for the Panasonic Wild Knights and then changed codes to play for the Roosters.
It would be easy to call the man a mercenary and to deride his pursuit of ever higher wages, but through it all he has maintained the kind of conditioning and performance levels that ordinary people can only dream about.
With Sonny Bill Williams you get what you pay for and because of that the NZRU is willing to take him on his own terms. At 29 he knows his body will eventually let him down, but until that day he goes on driving himself to ever higher levels of achievement. This season, as usual, Williams has delivered more off-loads than any other player in Super Rugby. He has helped to inspire the Chiefs to four wins out of five and played a starring role in last week’s defeat of the Stormers in Cape Town.
It is not likely that Steyn has endured any sleepless nights ahead of this week’s clash; he’s not the type. The maddening thing is that he has it in him to make Williams look ordinary on any given day. Furthermore, Springbok captain Jean de Villiers remains doubtful for the World Cup at the end of the year and it was the latter’s injury at the 2007 tournament that first thrust Steyn into the mix.
In a sane world there would be civilised meetings going on behind the scenes to ease Steyn back into international contention. Don’t hold your breath.
As it happens, the Sharks will have it all to do whether Steyn is on song or not on Saturday. The Chiefs are one of their bogey sides; they have not beaten the men from Waikato since 2007 and lost twice against them in 2012, including the final in the year the Chiefs won the tournament for the first time.
The absence through injury of Pieter-Steph du Toit will have a huge effect on the home side. The talented lock has been the Sharks’ principal source of ball in the line-outs and has been equally prominent in loose play. If they can paper over the cracks Du Toit’s injury leaves behind and if Steyn can dominate Williams they have a chance. It’s an extremely tall order.