by PREETI VIRDEE
THE whole world sat up and took notice when, on November 11th 2006, a shaggy young rugby player called Francois Philippus Lodewyk Steyn trotted out onto the field for a test between the Springboks and Ireland at Lansdowne Road. It was his first game for the Springboks, but the nineteen-year-old had already caused raised eyebrows in the rugby fraternity as a result of his performance with South African franchise the Sharks in the Currie Cup. He was described as ‘the one to watch’.
And he did not disappoint. Despite the fact that the Boks lost to the Irish it was Francois’ game. Fresh out of school, having played only one season for a professional team, his rise seemed meteoric. He showed poise beyond his years, a maturity that had the rugby writers reaching for their phrase books, and an on-field presence that won him an enormous and immediate fan base.
He initially became known as the ‘magic man’ and now the ‘rocket launcher’, he had a habit of winning games in the last few minutes with the most impossible drop kicks. Even Wallabies captain Stirling Mortlock admitted that the Wallabies had been taken aback by Steyn’s uncanny skill with the boot, when the Wallabies lost to the Boks at Newlands in the opening game of the Tri-Nations.
”He has shown us that he can kick from anywhere on the field,” Mortlock said. “We have never had to put in such as defensive effort as we did today.”
But while growing up on his family’s Free State farm, which grows crops of maize and supports a dairy, Francois did not think much about a rugby career – he thought that he would finish his education and return home to run the farm.
“However, during school I realised I had a talent,” he said. “I have always loved playing rugby” (he has been punting a ball since the age of six) “and during school games I began to realise that there could be a future for me in rugby.”
Grey College in Bloemfontein in the Free State is a school renowned for turning out more Springboks than any other including Jannie, Bismarck and Morne du Plessis, Ruan Pienaar and CJ van der Linde; Steyn is yet another proud alumni. He had hardly allowed the ink to dry on his final exams when he was offered places in several teams, the final decision going to the Sharks in Durban.
And it was while watching television one evening that he discovered he had become a Springbok:
“We are always interested in the team selections, and so we were watching when they announced the Springbok team that was going to Ireland,” says Steyn. “And they called out my name! I got such a shock because no-one had said anything to me before the time.”
But the transition from Free State farm boy to international jet-setter was not too hard:
“Grey College is a good grounding for touring with the Springboks,” said Steyn. “You get a lot of practice in travelling from match and match!”
His family are also a grounding for the youngster, with that pragmatic, calm, close and indestructible family bond that is so particularly Afrikaans. His family support him all the way.
“He is only interested in things that look like a rugby ball,” said his mother Marcia. “He loves what he does, but it is not glamorous!”
“I don’t get home much,” admits Steyn, “I miss my mom’s cooking!”
The family try to watch as many games live as possible, because Francois finds that having his family there is a grounding for him.
“If he sees his father in the stands, it calms him,” says Marcia. “He needs to know that his family is nearby.”
It is not always possibly to gauge the stress on a young player who is catapulted from a rural farm existence which is ruled by sunrise, sunset and the seasonal rainfall to the excoriated spotlight of globally competitive sport, and Francois has had his fair share of bad days at the office.
His nadir came during the Super 14 final in Durban against the Blue Bulls in 2007, when he missed two crucial kicks that, in the opinion of some commentators, lost the game for the Sharks.
“Don’t let us dispatch this very promising player to the scrap heap because of one shocker,” said one rugby writer. “But the fellow needs to relax a little and perhaps look like he might be enjoying what he is doing. He looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and – let’s face it, sometimes acts like the petulant teenager he was until last Thursday. We need to manage this kid properly, SARU.”
At least someone was becoming aware of the crushing pressure of expectation that was being placed on these very young shoulders. Francois himself feels his age very keenly, knowing that sometimes it is not always a bad thing.
“The older guys looked after me,” he says. “They called me ‘schoolboy’ sometimes, but they were all good to me. This was my first world cup, and it is nice to listen sometimes to players who have been to other world cups to find out what it is going to be like.” And what a world cup it was to turn out to be – Steyn became the youngest world cup Winner at 19 as the Springboks taught England a lesson in winning for the second time in 5 weeks.
Francois regards himself as an instinctive player – he often plays without analysing exactly what he is doing. “I see every game as a challenge,” he says. “We know our opponents, but we don’t always know what they are going to do next.”
The 2007 Rugby World Cup was all business: the managers gave the team very little time for sightseeing and travel. Francois’ personal goal was a lot more immediate, though, than bringing home the William Webb Ellis trophy: “I want to grow my hair!” he said, in response to constant media requests whether he will abandon his new short-back-and-sides style and revert back to his trademark shaggy mop. Bring home the trophy they did…but Frans must have snuck out and had a good look around the proud Gallic nation as what South Africa and the Sharks lost, Paris gained in September this year. Frans left the Sharks for colder climes and joined Racing Métro 92 Paris alongside legends such as Sebastian Chabal and Andrew Mehrtens.
Before his journey to the Northern Hemisphere, Frans yet again showed his mettle to the world during the All Blacks v Springboks Tri Nations title clincher as he blasted a trio of penalties from inside his own half, leaving most speechless and his captain John Smit with little to say other than "He's not a goalkicker, he's a rocket launcher."
But whether he is sleek and short or wild and woolly, the real excitement for Springboks fans is when Francois runs out of the field and creates an ripple of calm on the field. The question that hovers throughout the game then is: “What impossible stunt is he going to do next?”
In the most closely contested race to be named IRB Player of the Year since the Award's inception in 2001, Frans Steyn was nominated alongside Ireland's Jamie Heaslip and Brian O'Driscoll, fellow Bokke Fourie du Preez, Australia's Matt Giteau and England's Tom Croft, but all were pipped to the post by New Zealand captain Richie McCaw.
Rugby Unplugged caught up with the formidable 22 year old, who even though he is no longer South Africa based, with the country’s policy of selecting foreign based players said "I haven't given up on representing my country at the next World Cup,"…
Ireland was your first test for the Springboks. How was it?
It was really amazing. And a huge honour. I never thought it would happen so quickly. But the Lord blessed me. So much has happened this year.
You scored your first try on your debut. How did that feel?
I didn’t know what to do! I was VERY happy after the match when I realised what I did.
So did you party after?
I was rooming with Andre Pretorius. We went out.
He’s my hero so to room with him is cool. It’s very strange.
Why do you love Rugby?
It’s fun. I was born with a rugby ball in my hand
Do you see yourself as a celebrity?
No. [Rugby] learns you about life
Do you have a big female fan-base that you know of?
Why do you think girls love rugby players?
Because they are sexy and well-built
How long and how often do you train?
Gym in the morning then the afternoon on the field
Do you have a match ritual?
Do you use male beauty products?
What's your favourite food?
How do to get rid of nerves before a match?
I don’t really get them
Where do you call home?
Did you ever play football (soccer)?
Only for fun
What is your club nickname?
I don’t have one. I didn’t do something stupid yet!
Words most commonly used to describe you?
Friendly and easy-going
Are you superstitious?
Which words inspired you most?
“You haven’t done anything until you’ve given everything”
What’s your favourite music?
Everything but not heavy metal
What's your star sign?
What is your favourite city?
Durban…it’s the sea
What is your greatest talent?
I don’t know
What’s your favourite car?
Maserati and Lamborghini
Who’s the sexiest woman ever?
Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock
What’s the most important thing in life?
Try and stay as down to earth as possible
What’s your favourite word in the English language?
Who is your favourite author?
I don’t like reading
Who is your favourite celebrity?
Hmmm…I’ll come back to that
Where would your ideal holiday be?
What is your favourite TV programme?
Smallville and CSI
When you’re away from home, what MUST you have with you?
My Bible, my tooth brush, my cell phone, my MP3 player and my camera.
Worst thing about living now?
Everything is too expensive
Who influenced you most?
Do you want children?
What motivates you?
Anything positive; anything and anyone positive can drive me
What is your ultimate fantasy?
To own an island, somewhere where no one can see
If not a rugby player. what would you be?
Architect…or a farmer!
Are there any other professional rugby players in your family?
What is your greatest achievement both personally and in your career to date?
Winning the William Webb Ellis trophy in France.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a guy who always laughed, always had a smile on his face
Comedy or action? Both
Sean Connery or Roger Moore? Sean Connery
Books or films? Films
Beer or spirits? Cider
Fast food or healthy eating? Fast food
Kylie or Britney? Britney
The Simpsons or South Park? Neither
Night in or night out? Both
Kate Moss or Jordan? Jordan
McDonald’s or Burger King? Burger King
Bon Jovi or U2? U2
The Godfather or Shawshank Redemption? The Godfather
Lager or Bitter? Lager
Beyoncé or J-Lo? J-Lo
Blonde or Brunette? Both
Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings? Lord of the Rings
FIRST THING THAT COMES TO YOUR MIND…
Marriage I don’t know
Reality TV Not a great fan
George W Bush Don’t know anything about him
Martin Johnson Respected rugby player
Francois Pienaar Hero
David Campese Good coach
Name: Francois Philippus Lodewyk Steyn
Birthday: 14th May 1987
Position: Full Back, Centre, Wing, Fly Half
Weight: 110kgs / 17st 4.5lbs
Height: 191cm / 6ft 3ins
Club: Racing Métro 92 Paris
Joined: September 2009
Former Clubs: Natal Sharks
Hobbies: Motorbikes, Golf, DVDs