GAVIN RICH: Frans Steyn shows what he can do at flyhalf
In mourning the sad and untimely death of Springbok legend Chester Williams I wonder how many people paused to contemplate the role fate can play in determining the dominant narrative of the life of a top sportsman.
The 1995 World Cup triumph has been what everyone has referred to in celebrating the life of the likeable and brilliant former Western Province and Golden Lions wing. Williams was synonymous with that World Cup because it was his face that adorned the street posters and other marketing vehicles that advertised the tournament in the buildup.
The words emblazoned across the posters: “The waiting is nearly over,” almost became Chessie’s signature for a while. But he so nearly missed out on playing any role in the event that became the defining period of his life and those of his teammates.
A few weeks before kick-off Williams was ruled out with injury. That is why it is Pieter Hendricks, and not Williams, we see rounding the legendary Wallaby David Campese to score the first try of the 1995 campaign in that series of snippets being used to advertise the 2019 event.
Yet Hendricks wasn’t there to celebrate the winning of the World Cup. The low point of that tournament, an ugly brawl in the final pool match against Canada in Port Elizabeth, saw Bok hooker James Dalton and Hendricks expelled from the tournament.
If you watch the video, Dalton was perhaps a bit unlucky. His banishment only came about because he was the Bok the referee sent off during the game. It’s not really clear what he did other than smash into the advertising boards on the side of the field.
The video footage played at the disciplinary hearing the following week more clearly fingered Hendricks. The wing’s disappointment turned out to be Williams’s opportunity, one that the Bok management eagerly jumped at, and the rest as they say is history.
Williams, who had won the SA rugby player of the year award the year before, completely justified why he was considered the first-choice wing before he was injured and his presence ensured that the team at the heart of the “one team, one country” slogan, playing for the Rainbow Nation, wasn’t just made up of white players.
That fate can play such a strong role in determining the narrative of a World Cup is one of the reasons I feel too much emphasis is put on the preparation for a World Cup. Yes, the intense focus rugby will get in the next two months is great for the sport, and if the Boks win the tournament it will be a huge boost for not just our rugby but also the country.
But the rugby played in the in-between years and the integrity of Test match rugby should matter and not be sacrificed to the altar of preparing for a World Cup that is either months or years away.
It is the World Cup though that provides the defining moments of players’ careers, and the Williams/Hendricks positive/negative experience of fate playing a determining role is not just limited to them. You could just as easily replace those names with Frans Steyn/Jean de Villiers.
It was his performances in the Bok No 12 jersey after De Villiers’ unfortunate injury in the first match of the tournament in 2007 that set young Steyn up as a national hero. Whether it was a good or bad thing is something that might be debated, for some who have worked with him feel that had he not been a World Cup winner at the age of just 20, Steyn would have enjoyed a much longer international career.
What is inarguable though is that a fully committed Steyn does have something to offer, and for me his performance as the replacement flyhalf in the second half of the 41-7 win over Japan that completed the Bok warm-up for this World Cup was the biggest positive to come from the match.
I’ve never liked Steyn as a flyhalf, but he can be a commanding presence there in a wet-weather game, which the humidity will determine that at least the early matches of this World Cup will be.
He did make the mistake that cost the Boks the only try they conceded but the length of Steyn’s field kicks sent out a reminder of what he could offer if called upon in the weeks to come.
If there is one player the Boks can’t do without it is Handré Pollard. If the first-choice flyhalf is injured, then Elton Jantjies must start. But Steyn showed in Kumagaya that he can be relied upon to be the third-choice back-up at pivot.
His utility value and potential as a late game match-winner as an impact substitute should see him get the nod ahead of Jantjies for the match-day squad in the big World Cup games.