Jacques Nienaber made a huge call to pull his vice captain Handre Pollard off on 65 minutes, with the game at 13 all. At the beginning of the week though, Nienaber made the most mature and informed rugby decision in backing the experience of 37-year old Morne Steyn to deliver for South Africa in the biggest moment of the Test series against the British & Irish Lions, writes Oliver Keohane.
Morne Steyn, within minutes of running onto the field, was unwavering in calling for the tee and kicking the Springboks to 16-13 in the final quarter and then he kicked the Boks into a 19-16 lead with a minute to play and, in keeping with the moment, he was the one who put the ball into the empty stands of the Cape Town Stadium to win the series for the Springboks, as he had done 12 years ago in Pretoria when the Boks, through Steyn’s last kick of the second Test won the series.
In 2009, 12 years ago, Morne Steyn was a South African hero when he kicked the Springboks of 2009 to victory in Pretoria. On the 7th of August 2021, Morne Steyn was as magical in Cape Town, in calmly doing exactly what he was picked to do.
The moment of Steyn’s series winning kick was as magnificent of the story of his 12 year year journey, but South Africa, and the world, must give credit to rookie coach Jacques Nienaber for identifying that Morne Steyn was a man capable of delivering on that moment.
There have been some big calls over the series, selection-wise, and there have been some big injury-enforced obstacles. The Springboks played the final Test of the series without World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph Du Toit and without scrumhalf Faf De Klerk, while playing the entire series without Duane Vermeulen.
Nienaber was bold in opting to not select veteran Francois Steyn, and instead backing the experienced boot of Morne Steyn and the expandability of young talent Damian Willemse on the bench. Nienaber, though his team won convincingly (27-9) with a 6-2 bench split in the second Test, backed his systems in selecting a 5-3 split to conquer the Lions in the final Test. He was astute in picking Cobus Reinach to start in place of Faf, to allow Jantjies the same impact off the bench, and he was just brilliant in backing Morne Steyn in the biggest of moments.
Nienaber, as brave in selection as he was, was equally calm in adjusting to injury adversity, quickly moving Franco Mostert to flank and unconditionally backing his ability, while selecting two loose forwards on the bench in contrast to the two locks that the World Cup winning Springbok side of 2019 saw success with.
Mostert delivered around the park in the same way that Steyn delivered from the tee, and every substitution by Nienaber was timely and effective over the course of an 80 minute period that saw many Springbok players bloodied and bruised.
Late last year we ran a story encouraging the selection of Morne Steyn, for his ability to breeze through the biggest moments. Kudos to Nienaber for shutting out any noise surrounding age, and backing a player who during an Indian summer was always going to do what he does best; not miss.
Handre Pollard, for all his brilliance around the field over the series, had missed two costly kicks for the Springboks on the night. A player’s confidence after two missed kicks, regardless of his stature and quality, begins to waver, and in the last 15 minutes of the game what was needed was the confidence of a player who had been there and done it before, and who on the night (technically) was yet to miss.
Morne Steyn has been nothing short of magnificent in not only his contribution to South African rugby, but his timely and emphatic return to it. And Jacques Nienaber, in a career-defining introduction to head coach, has been commendable in trusting Morne Steyn to guide the Springboks to glory again.
Nienaber, over the course of the series, has done an outstanding job from a selections perspective, and the Springboks of 2021, as they did in 2019, have embodied the modern meaning of a 23-man game.
From World Cup glory in 2019, to 20 months of no rugby, to a series win over the British & Irish Lions…The Springboks are world beaters, and their management is world class.