I would still start Morne Steyn ahead of Pat Lambie against Wales in the tour opener.
Lambie will provide cover from the bench and Johan Goosen will get game time against Scotland, at best, as he is nursed back to full fitness.
Here’s a piece I wrote in the October issue of SA Rugby Magazine, on how valuable Steyn is to the Springboks, now and in the build up to – and at – the 2015 World Cup in England.
Had Morné Steyn been more accurate with his goal-kicking in Port Elizabeth, Mendoza and Dunedin in 2012, the Boks would have won all three Tests. Steyn stuttered and the Boks drew two and lost one.
When you want to know how good Steyn is, that statistic is revealing because he is the most capped Springbok flyhalf, with 47 appearances (after the first two rounds of the Rugby Championship).
He has won so many games for the Boks, with his three most famous efforts being the injury-time miracle kick to win the 2009 series against the British & Irish Lions; when he scored all 31 points to beat the All Blacks and secure a home ‘series’ win against them in 2009; and, of course, when he kicked five penalties and a drop goal to sink the All Blacks 18-5 in Port Elizabeth in 2011.
Steyn holds the Test world record for the longest run of successful goal kicks (41). He is huge to South African rugby. He is integral to the Springboks.
But whenever the call goes out for him to be axed, the Port Elizabeth, Mendoza and Dunedin exhibits are hauled out. The anti-Steyn lobbyists will never forget those misses, but they aren’t as likely to reflect on the days the kicks went over.
Steyn had issues greater than rugby to contend with in the period he kicked just 10 from 22 in a three-Test series against England, couldn’t find the target consistently in Mendoza and produced his worst international goal-kicking performance against the All Blacks in Dunedin.
He was fatigued, troubled by issues beyond his control and his father had been arrested for an alleged theft in a business deal that went south. The charges were later dropped and it was widely reported in the media that his father paid back the R25 000 in question. Steyn, the player, had also become a father for the first time.
But Steyn had to work and live through the trauma that comes with seeing a parent publicly humiliated. He was also contending with the first year of fatherhood. His body had said enough after three successive years of rugby without missing a game, including a testing 2011 World Cup campaign. His mind had greater things to contend with than bisecting the posts.
The player, introverted by nature, never shied away from the rugby responsibility and, speaking to those who know him, he also never shied away from what was expected of him as a parent and a son.
Springbok and former Bulls coach Heyneke Meyer knew exactly what the player was experiencing, but neither coach nor player publicly asked for sympathy or looked for excuses.
‘Morné isn’t playing as well as he could, but I know he will find his best form and he will benefit from being in the Bok environment,’ Meyer said.
Even when world rugby’s most accurate kicker experienced the worst goal-kicking slump of his career, Meyer stated publicly it would be short-lived. He said Steyn would be back, stronger and better than before. The coach knows his player.
Many had an opinion on Steyn. Goal-kicking experts said he had tweaked his technique and was struggling for fluency. There was the theory that Steyn, because of sponsorship commitments, had to wear a new pair of boots for every Test – and his goal-kicking suffered.
Meyer dismissed both theories. He asked the media privately to give his players some breathing space. He alluded to a situation that was more intense and more important than rugby.
Steyn was suffering in silence but was also being made to suffer in public. The man who won South Africa the British & Irish Lions series in 2009 with the most magnificent of penalties was being booed in Port Elizabeth in 2012 when his game fell apart in the Boks’ third and final Test against England.
The booing was disgraceful, but nothing new among South African supporters. Springbok wing Bryan Habana knows how it feels. Steyn knows how it feels and so many other brilliant Springboks, like the legendary World Cup-winning fullback Percy Montgomery, know how it feels to be jeered at home by a support base that too often is reactionary and won’t show any empathy to their own.
Steyn, a year earlier, had kicked the All Blacks to defeat in Port Elizabeth. A year later he was the villain. Another year later, in 2013, he would again be the hero when he kicked the Boks to a late win against the Pumas in Mendoza.
The public – and many within the media – may not have an appreciation for Steyn, but his team-mates, at the Bulls and the Boks, never need a second invitation to espouse the virtues of a player who has won more games for the Boks than he will ever lose.
Meyer has never excused a poor performance from any of his players or tried to play it down, but he has never viewed players on once-off highs and lows.
Meyer has worked with Steyn as a professional player for a decade. He knows the man behind the boot and he has never doubted the man, let alone the player.
Meyer has often told me it is Steyn’s qualities as a man that make him so influential in a team environment.
‘He is loyal, he is proudly South African and he is an outstanding rugby player. He is more than just a great goal-kicker.’
Meyer knows Steyn’s value – as do the All Blacks and Wallabies, whose coaches have often expressed their respect for Steyn’s capabilities as a player. The cynic would argue they would say that, but be in New Zealand and Australia when the Boks are on tour and the respect for Steyn is not lip service.
His qualities as a match-winner are applauded. His successes are spoken about. His misses, like in Dunedin, are the stuff of surprise.
Meyer has played Johan Goosen, Elton Jantjies and Pat Lambie at flyhalf in his first two seasons as Bok coach. Goosen, when fit, adds a dimension to any attack and Lambie, at his best, is possibly the most rounded of all the options, but when it comes to Test rugby Meyer won’t easily look past Steyn.
There was a time I thought it was misguided loyalty, but no more. I’d always want a fit Goosen in the Bok mix, but then I would also want a fit and firing Steyn in the mix. To quote Meyer, Steyn is a warrior as a person and a match-winner as a player.
We remember the missed kicks because they are so rare, but in doing so we often forget to applaud and celebrate the ones that go over 90% of the time.
South Africans – and I am as guilty as the next supporter – do Steyn a disservice. We berate and abuse him but rarely do we thank him.