Durban – The performance of unknown 19-year-old centre, Andre Esterhuizen, against Saracens at the weekend was hugely encouraging for the Sharks, and it reminded seasoned supporters of the debut performance of another powerfully built 19-year-old some years ago, Francois Steyn, who will be the first-choice No 12 before Esterhuizen.
Steyn was a late withdrawal from the match because of injury, giving the youngster from North West his opportunity, but the 26-year-old Steyn remains the inside centre of choice as he enters a crucial stage of his career.
For so long, Steyn was the immensely talented youngster whose gung ho approach could be excused on the vagaries of youth, but he is now entering a different stage of his career and needs to show maturity as well as the “X factor”.
Sharks coach Jake White agrees, and he knows Steyn’s ability and personality better than anyone, having introduced the Free Stater to international rugby when White was Bok coach and Steyn still a teenager.
“I’m fortunate that when I coached the national team, a lot of youngsters earned their first Test caps – Frans Steyn, Ryan Kankowski, Odwa Ndungane and Bismarck du Plessis were some of them,” White said before the Saracens game.
“I’ve known what makes Frans tick since he was a schoolboy at Grey College,” White said of a youth who won games for White and the Boks with outrageous drop-goals and booming long-range penalties, and played a significant role in the Boks’ 2007 Rugby World Cup triumph.
“I know how he thinks. His whole life has changed,” White said. “He is married and has a child – his value system has changed. I’m sure that will have an impact on the way he plays.
“Last year, he went through three coaches before the year ended. Frans likes stability, he likes to be guided without force,” White said of the player who fell out with White’s successor at Bok level, Peter de Villiers, who angrily told Steyn that he should not expect a straight answer to Steyn’s plea that he be taken off a merry-go-round that saw him play for the Boks at 10, 11, 12 and 15.
So Steyn packed his kit bag and went for big bucks to Parisian club Racing Metro.
Last year he returned to the Sharks, only to suffer a horrible calf injury against the Highlanders that resulted in him spending more than a week in a Dunedin hospital, and almost the rest of the year on the sidelines when a knee injury then struck in his comeback to training.
“He is still a prodigy, a sensational player, a freak,” White said.
“He was spoken about as the guy who could change rugby. That’s what’s so exciting. I’m back (from Australia), and sat him down and told him I really need him to show everyone what I think he can do.
“That’s important, because when he’s next to flyhalf Patrick Lambie, you will see a much better Patrick, and Frans taking control of the things he can.
“He’s still a work in progress,” White said of a player who has already played 53 Tests, but has been absent from the international stage for two years.
“He came back here and had a knee operation after that calf injury, so he’s not 100 percent yet, but everyone knows what his 80 percent is, and that’s better than most people when they’re 100 percent.”
The Sharks conclude their pre-season preparation with a match at Ellis Park against the Lions next week, before playing the Bulls at Kings Park on February 15.