It wasn’t until he laid eyes on John Smit, captain of South Africa’s 2007 World Cup-winning giants, that the enormity of what Frans Steyn and his 2019 team stood within 80 minutes of achieving struck him like a freight train. Steyn was a pup back in 2007, a straggly haired 20-year-old thrust into the heart of the irrepressible Springboks.
He could lash the ball from Pretoria to Cape Town, cut hulking men in two and generally made international rugby look obscenely easy as he became the youngest player in history to get his paws on the Webb Ellis Cup. Now, in the clammy warmth of Yokohama with a swaggering England lying in wait, he was the veteran of Rassie Erasmus’ reinvigorated South Africa. He saw his old warhorse and ex-skipper on the touchline and began to well up.
“On the field before the final, I saw John Smit and I got emotional because in 2007 I was young, I didn’t realise what it meant,” said Steyn to RugbyPass. “You always think you’ll get another chance if it doesn’t work out. You don’t take it that seriously. I didn’t even worry before the final in 2007 – I don’t stress a lot before games, I make jokes and all those things – I was sat next to Jacque Fourie and he was listening to frickin’ comedy songs before the World Cup final.
“When I was young, I didn’t think of the team that much, you just want to prove yourself, show why you’re there. The last World Cup, it was more like, I don’t need to prove anything, I just need to support the guys around me and do my best for the team – hopefully I’m still good enough to do that. This time, most of the players went through the bad times with the Boks so it meant so much to them that they weren’t playing around or whatever.”
Before Erasmus arrived and hauled them out of the doldrums, the Springboks were a ghostly shadow of the great South African teams of yore. There were losses to Ireland, Wales and Argentina, and a heinous defeat by Italy, in two years of brutal failure under Allister Coetzee, a coach Steyn describes as a thoroughly good bloke trapped in the wrong movie.
Coetzee’s reign met a messy end in early 2018. That June, Erasmus took over and almost immediately delivered clarity, sharper selection, and a game plan built on the brawny pillars of South African rugby. “The All Blacks were playing this massive expansive game and everybody tried to follow them,” explained Steyn.
“But we all, as nations, are different, we play different rugby and we play to our strengths. Wanting to move the ball ten times to the side is not South Africa’s strength. Everybody would love to see that but that’s not Test rugby – Test rugby, you play to win.
“Rassie focused on getting back to South Africa’s strengths – we have to scrum well, we have to maul well, the kicking game became so much more of a weapon over the last two years than everybody wants to make out, even though if you look at expansive rugby, most of the top teams in the world, their kicking game is the best in their league.”
Steyn got a serious shock when Erasmus rang him last year to discuss a return to the Test arena. He had spent the bulk of the previous decade in the international wilderness in France with Racing 92 and then Montpellier, and had last started a Test in 2012. His only international outings had come in three cameos against the touring French in 2017.
At 32, he thought his chances of making another World Cup were done, but he was desperate to seize this unlikely opportunity. After months of toil, he became part of the Springboks’ now-famous ‘Bomb Squad’, the group of brilliant, experienced bench men who would stroll into the starting XVs of many a tier one side.
“I’m just lucky there was a role for me,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to get the chance to play at another World Cup, so I didn’t care if I was going to hold bags – it was about being part of something. And I knew if Rassie was in charge there would be something special.
“Even today there is a special bond within the bomb squad. The bomb squad had a massive influence on the team. It gave the starting players so much calmness because they knew the people coming on – I’m not talking about me, because I know I’m not better than Damian de Allende – like Malcolm Marx, on any given day, if Bongi Mbonambi is a little bit off, he’s going to be better than Bongi, and the other way around as well. It brought a lot of confidence to the team knowing the people coming on are world-class.”
Not Sure I would know what to say to any other team before a W Cup Final. Not Happening !!! pic.twitter.com/eCyiMQDRkc
— Rassie Erasmus (@RassieRugby) February 9, 2020
In his brilliant social media videos offering a rare window into the team room of the champions, Erasmus talked to his players about the need to be warriors, not for themselves, but for the rainbow nation they were representing. His skill lay in knitting together a group of men from wildly different backgrounds and cultures, uniting them in a common goal.
It would be a victory for the township urchins like Siya Kolisi, the nation’s first black captain, children reared in extreme poverty like Makazole Mapimpi, the electric winger, for the rugby-obsessed Afrikaaners on the farms of the Free State and the city boys who followed a prestigious route to the green and gold.
“If you look at Siya, Mapimps, a lot of guys who came out of real trouble growing up, it’s bigger for the kids this time because there are kids in South Africa that think, ‘He was there, I can also do that’. It’s bringing people together. Maybe someone is having a hard time in business and it gives them hope for another day, another week, another year.
“But that talk was more towards the end of the competition. When I joined them before the Rugby Championship, there was a lot of emphasis on knowing your role in the game plan, in the squad, on and off the field. Later on in the competition it only started being about playing for something more and all of that. Rassie couldn’t start with that because he had to build the foundation first.
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Sad that we won’t be seeing you on the field anymore but man what an amazing career. So many people look up to you. Learned so much from you in such a short time, forever one of my heroes!!! Good luck for the next chapter @schalkbrits . Gaan jou baie mis my vriend maar sien jou Junie!
“If he’d started with that – ‘We have to play for our country, we have to play for our country’ – the first thing we do in South Africa when we lose two, three, four games, is that people start saying, ‘We have to play for our country’. That didn’t go well with the Boks.
“He did really well, maybe thinking that the players have been hearing that for the last two years. The way he treated us, he was always confident in the players he had, he never worried – maybe when he went to bed, but we never saw that.”
Amid the joy and chaos of Japan and the aftermath of the Boks’ savaging of England, Steyn enjoyed an uproarious interaction with British royalty. Prince Harry, keen to congratulate the South African players, was – to put it diplomatically – fashionably late to the changing room. Upon his arrival the bewildered Duke of Sussex had an open bottle of lager thrust into his hand by the bomb squad’s most mischievous member.
“We won and we got into the changing room but we couldn’t start the celebrations because we had to wait for him and he wanted to come to the locker room,” Steyn explained. “So I decided, why don’t we give him a beer and let him down it because we’ve been waiting for him for an hour and we just want to have a beer after we won. But it didn’t go as planned.”
— Liam Del Carme (@LiamDelCarme1) November 2, 2019
Pints with the prince and the din of that triumph are over now, although its impact will resonate through the country long and loud for years to come. Soon, Steyn will return to the Free State, near the Bethlehem farm where he was raised, and which his parents still tend, beginning a two-year stint with the Cheetahs in the Guinness PRO14.
He wants to be nearer his family and settle his three young children in school, but there is sporting motivation too. Steyn was part of the Boks team that beat the Lions in a truly pulsating series in 2009. The second Test in Pretoria, which South Africa won 28-25, was a violent and utterly mesmeric whopper of a contest, two behemoths pounding blow for blow like rutting stags. Steyn longs for another crack at the cream of Britain and Ireland.
“That second Test in 2009 was crazy, one of the toughest Tests I’ve been a part of,” he said. “Danie Rossouw got knocked out by Brian O’Driscoll, Bakkies Botha cleaned Adam Jones’ shoulder off. It’s not going to be fun, but it’ll be good. I don’t know how many players have played against the Lions twice. The great players can make four World Cups, but the Lions happens only once in 12 years. That puts it on another level. And at the moment, England and Ireland have got massive teams and massive players.
“I’ve been out of South Africa more than I’ve been in it during my rugby career. My wife has been everywhere with me, and for once, I asked her what she wants, what she thinks is best, and we have to get our kids into school. It’s close to the farm for me, and even if I can make it to a livestock auction with my dad one or two more times, I would really like that. I haven’t been with them on Christmas day since I was 20.”
1? First Springbok start today since 2012
? World Cup winner Frans Steyn
— Springboks (@Springboks) September 28, 2019
With the re-election of Bill Beaumont as World Rugby chairman, talk of a global calendar and the financial ruin wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, these feel like seminal days for the sport. South Africa sits in a fascinating position – rich beyond measure in talent and love for the game, yet economically feeble. There has long been talk of abandoning the southern hemisphere in favour of the vast wealth and far more convenient time zones of the north.
“A lot of the time, decisions are made that are not best for South African rugby,” reckoned Steyn. “If there are two New Zealand teams in the Super Rugby final I’d bet most of the TV audience for that game came from South Africa, but South Africa gets the least money.
“People can’t say that northern hemisphere rugby is s***. I’ve been playing here for a while now and if they come to the north, it will be good for South Africa, and the rugby will be good, it will be tough every week. It will still be good if they stay in the south, but at the moment, we are losing players, we can’t spend rand against pound, so it’s definitely something to look at. I would go north.
“Rassie will sort it out, though. The Bulls, Sharks, and Stormers sign how many young players each? The best young guys almost always go to those unions. With Rassie in charge, things will change, and some of the younger players will get distributed more evenly through the unions.”
The Cheetahs are still seen in South Africa as less glamorous than the big franchise beasts, but Steyn is eager to change that. In Bloemfontein, he will reunite with his close friend Ruan Pienaar and is lobbying more titans of old to return to South Africa. Bismarck du Plessis, a team-mate at Montpellier, is high on his list.
“We need to win something. I’m not going there just to roll over and die. We need to build something special, something that can last a long time. I played there when I was younger and it’s very close to my heart.
“I’m trying to get players to go back there, some of the older players. The money is the issue, but it will be good if we can get a Bismarck to come and help. The Cheetahs are playing against Leinster and Munster, a lot of international players, and you need quality and experience to win competitions.
“There are very good players at the Cheetahs now, I’m just saying you need that in your team. Even if it’s young guys, they don’t have to be internationals, if we can just get people to go to the Cheetahs. Because sometimes you get two contracts and you think, ach, it’s the Cheetahs, I’m not going to go, you understand? If we can change that, it’ll be good.”
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