Durban - The dramatic withdrawal of Francois Steyn from the Springbok squad to play Wales on Saturday has rocked South African rugby.
The 27-year-old on Tuesday made a sudden application to his SARU employers to be released from his playing duties with immediate affect, a decision that is probably as much due to his ongoing knee problem as it is to a mental need for a break from the strain of professional rugby.
Steyn has been struggling with a knee complaint that has been managed by the Sharks during Super Rugby and has been acknowledged by Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer as a “long-term condition”.
But nobody can blame Meyer for last week picking Steyn for the match against the World XV given that the No 12 position is problematic following the injuries to Jean de Villiers and Damian de Allende, and the illness of Juan de Jongh.
Steyn, who was due to make his comeback to Test rugby on Saturday following a two-year absence, has clearly had enough and has himself taken the decision on whether not he should have a break from rugby.
Interestingly, Steyn will again be available to the Sharks following the June break for the incoming Tests against Wales and Scotland, and he said in a statement that he could make himself available to Meyer at a later stage.
Later this year he will begin a club rugby career in Japan, but right now he says he wants to “reflect” on his international career.
Steyn, a relatively young veteran for the Boks with 53 Tests since his debut as a 19-year-old under Jake White, has played without a break during the Super Rugby season primarily because of injuries to flyhalves Patrick Lambie and Fred Zeilinga. White, his paymaster at the Sharks, felt he could not do without Steyn’s talents and played him unremittingly, but Meyer justifiably wants a bite of the same cake.
The player is caught in between and he obviously feels that if neither coach is going to back down and give him a rest, he will decide for himself what is best for his career. That does not necessarily mean he is putting province ahead of country.
Steyn did not participate in the recent Springbok training camp in Durban but in the same week played for the Sharks against the Stormers. He was subsequently picked at centre for last week’s match against the World XV.
On Tuesday night, SARU said Steyn had advised them that he did not wish to be considered for this month’s Test matches and he intimated in a statement that this was not a case of him choosing between Meyer and White, who gave him his Test debut as a wing.
“The environment in the Springbok squad is fantastic and I would like to state categorically that my relationship with Heyneke Meyer, the rest of the management, and my teammates is very good,” said Steyn.
Steyn said that he wished for time to reflect on his Springbok future but, in the meantime, would continue playing for the Sharks.
SARU CEO Jurie Roux, no doubt taken by as much of a surprise as the rest of the country, said: “I have spoken at length to Frans and we are happy to accede to his request.
“He has asked for some time to consider his international playing future and we must respect that. Let me make it clear that he has not retired from international rugby, but he has requested a break from it.”
Roux added that Steyn had asked for privacy at this time.
“This is not an ideal situation, but I am sure Heyneke will adapt to his unavailability. Frans is now out of the squad and team management will respect his wish for privacy by not speculating on his decision or his likely return.”