If 2021 is to be the final year of Test rugby for Francois and Morne Steyn, the world could not have asked for an end more fitting to two phenomenal careers, writes Oliver Keohane.
Morne Steyn, now 37 years old, returned to the Bulls in late 2019 with the intent to see out his rugby career in Pretoria, and without any ambitions of a Springbok recall. So notable was his impact at flyhalf that conversations of a Springbok return quickly turned into a reality when he was selected in the squad to face the British & Irish Lions.
12 years earlier, Steyn had debuted against the British & Irish Lions and in the second Test of his career and the second Test of the series, he came off the bench to kick the Springboks to a 28-25 win which would see them win the 2009 series. The feeling in 2021 was that Steyn still had all the qualities and calm presence to provide the Springboks with an insurance policy were the need to arise.
Arise it did, and in one of the most spectacular Springbok rugby stories, Morne Steyn was subbed on for vice-captain Handre Pollard in the third Test against the British & Irish Lions, where he kicked two clutch penalties, the last of which was in the 79th minute, to steer South Africa to a 19-16 win and their second consecutive Lions series win, 12 years apart.
Morne Steyn went full circle, and in two vastly different stages of his career, fulfilled the exact role he was picked for. A 742 point, 68 Test career began and will potentially finish in a moment that not many players are lucky enough to experience, and Steyn owned his final moment with the same finesse he did his first.
Equally, the other veteran Steyn (34 years old and only other Springbok to also be selected for two Lions tours), was called on in a similar single moment this year. The measure of both players, beyond their illustrious careers, was the authority with which they commanded their respective moments, despite not playing much other rugby throughout the year.
Frans Steyn’s moment came in the Springboks most recent match against the All Blacks. 17 weeks in different bio-bubbles, battling injuries to key players and huge criticism from not only the South African rugby public, but the entire rugby world, the Boks needed to beat New Zealand. Willie Le Roux’s first 40 minutes were perhaps his worst in a Springbok jersey, and Frans Steyn was swapped straight in at half time to take up the fullback position. The effect was immediate, and Steyn commanded the field from his boot, dominated defensively and used all his experience to control a backline that ended the match with Pollard at inside centre and Lukhanyo Am on the wing.
Steyn’s 40 minutes put the Springboks into a position to once again contest a match that at half time seemed to be beyond reach, and it was the type of performance that encapsulated everything great about Frans Steyn’s career. Elton Jantjies was brilliant on the day too, and as he slotted the penalty that would win the Springboks the game 31-29, Frans Steyn’s elation was a joy to watch.
In 2008, Steyn had converted Ricky Januarie’s try to beat the All Blacks 30-28 for the first Springbok win in New Zealand since 1998, and 13 years later he was back, in a very different context, to contribute once again to Springbok glory. In Steyn’s 69-Test career – which everybody will argue could have been close to 150 Tests under different circumstances – he has played the All Blacks 11 times, won five, lost five and drawn one. What will probably be his last Test against the New Zealanders made for his fifth win, but he celebrated it like it was his first.
Both Steyns never lost sight of what their roles were in the 2021 Springboks squad, as opposed to when they were the young stars of earlier Springbok teams. But both, with such eloquence, delivered in two of the biggest moments of the year and their long careers, and proved once again that old enough is good enough, and class doesn’t fade.
The story of South Africa’s two Steyns is as magical as they come in a rugby context, and their swan song year was a compliment to their stunning careers.
WATCH: Morne Steyn’s match-winning kicks against the British & Irish Lions