Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Primarily a mentoring presence … or back to more traditional status as a points machine?
That will be the intriguing question among Bulls devotees as Morne Steyn now actively re-joins the Loftus fold for the first time in some seven years – he wrapped up his 2013-and-onward obligations with Stade Francais on Saturday.
Steyn, 35, was a substitute in the 25-9 loss to Paris derby rivals Racing 92 at the weekend, as Argentinean star Nicolas Sanchez, four years his junior, started at flyhalf for the currently struggling club.
It raises the possibility that Steyn will have a similar role during Super Rugby 2020, which begins for the Bulls with a fixture against compatriots the Sharks in Durban on January 31.
Whatever his status within the matchday 23 by then, the first opportunity the Pretoria near-cult figure will have to sample the Loftus match-day vibe again will be when they play, in round four, the Blues there on February 22.
Steyn’s last match in the competition in Pretoria had come in now distant July 2013, the 26-23 home semi-final reverse to the Brumbies – his typically meaty 18 points off the kicking tee weren’t quite enough to see the hosts progress to the showpiece.
The veteran will return to a vastly different Bulls environment … in a sign of, among other factors, how crippling the exodus of SA players to overseas climes has been, not one of the starting XV that day will be around to greet him back in the fold.
Those to have moved on (or in some cases retired) subsequently include the likes of Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Francois Hougaard, Dewald and Jacques Potgieter, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger and Dean Greyling.
Indeed, a whole generation of more subsequent stars have also moved elsewhere ahead of the 2020 season, including Steyn’s illustrious successor at No 10, Handre Pollard (now also French-bound with Montpellier), RG Snyman, Jason Jenkins, Hanro Liebenberg and Jesse Kriel.
So it will be a “fresh start” for Steyn in more ways than one at the once-mighty franchise, who won the title three times during his earlier years in the camp (2007, 2009 and 2010).
How he gets deployed by coach Pote Human will be a reasonably delicate matter, as there is a huge gulf in experience between the returning Steyn and Manie Libbok, the 22-year-old who will begin just his third Super Rugby season shortly.
Former SA U20 star Libbok, who has already shown flashes of attacking genius though needs to improve his consistency, warrants a more extensive opportunity to settle into the No 10 jersey after naturally being well behind Pollard, a recent World Cup winner, in the Bulls’ pivot priority list for a couple of years.
At the same time, the Bulls still have a penchant for “taking the points” when they are offered through potential penalty shots at the posts, and that is where the 66-cap Springbok’s main strengths come appealingly into play; the ravages of ageing don’t necessarily translate into sudden frailty off the tee (or in more general tactical kicking).
Nowadays also offering possibilities as a stand-in fullback when required, Steyn returns to Super Rugby still as the country’s leading points-scorer in it: 1,467, and second only to Dan Carter (1,708) in tournament-wide history.
He holds other milestones like most points in a season (263) and most career dropped goals.
However much (or little) Steyn actually plays in the looming Super Rugby season, his mentorship should be invaluable to Libbok and other emerging flyhalves on the Bulls and Blue Bulls’ books.
But all those pecking-order considerations will remain of reasonably secondary value for the moment to the more nostalgia-laden of Bulls enthusiasts, who will simply be chuffed to see their blue-eyed boy imminently back in the corral …
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