Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber says that he couldn’t bring himself to watch replacement flyhalf Morné Steyn attempt the series-clinching penalty against the British & Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday.
Steyn – a decorated goal-kicking specialist – replaced starting flyhalf Handré Pollard in the final quarter of the third and decisive Test. The veteran went on to slot a penalty in the dying moments that gave South Africa a 19-16 win – and ultimately a 2-1 series victory.
Lions coach Warren Gatland as well as captain Alun Wyn Jones may have experienced feelings of dejavu. Twelve years ago in Pretoria, Gatland and Jones watched on as Steyn came off the bench to kick a long-range winner that gave the Boks a series victory.
On Saturday, the Boks were awarded a late penalty right out in front of the posts. It was a gimme for a man of Steyn’s experience and ability – and yet his own coach struggled to watch him take it.
“When Morné was lining up that kick, I was sitting with my head between my legs,” Nienaber said with a laugh after the match. “I didn’t see whether it went over or not. I had to rely on the reaction of my coaching team.
“I’m so happy for him. It’s almost like a fairytale, with Morné doing it 12 years ago and then doing it again today. My hat’s off to him.”
Before the game, the Bok coaches debated the merits of including Steyn ahead of Elton Jantjies on the bench.
“It could have gone either way, it was very close,” said Nienaber. “Ultimately we felt that Morné’s experience would be key in this particular situation.”
The decision to replace Pollard at a crucial stage of the game, however, was a bold one. While Steyn featured for the South Africa A side earlier in this series, the 37-year-old hadn’t played a Test match since 2016.
“I would love to take credit for the substitutions, but it was a call made by the coaching team as a whole,” Nienaber explained.
“There were a lot of discussions around it. I would be naive not to make use of Rassie Erasmus [who was serving as the team’s waterboy on the field] and to ask what he is feeling with regards to the players, and to also get some input from the medical team.
“It may look like I planned this perfectly with Morné coming on, but it was a group decision and in the end it was spot on.”
The Boks will begin their Rugby Championship title defence when they tackle Argentina in Gqebrha next Saturday.
South Africa will tackle the Pumas in back-to-back matches before travelling to Australasia for a challenging set of matches against the Wallabies and All Blacks.