South African Francois Steyn (C) evades two Australians during a 2022 Rugby Championship match in Adelaide
Johannesburg (AFP) - Emergency South Africa fly-half Francois Steyn has been called “incredible” by former head coach Rassie Erasmus ahead of a crucial Rugby Championship clash with Argentina on Saturday.
With Handre Pollard, Elton Jantjies and Damian Willemse unavailable, the 35-year-old utility back will make his first Springbok start as a playmaker since 2008 in the final round match.
First-choice Pollard is injured, Jantjies was dropped from the squad after reports of an alleged affair with the team dietician and Willemse is recovering from concussion.
That left Steyn as the only option for the clash with the Pumas at Kings Park in Durban and reserve scrum-half Faf de Klerk will also provide fly-half cover.
South African director of rugby Erasmus, the coaching mastermind behind South Africa winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, lavished praise on Steyn, who has won 77 caps.
“It is incredible how Francois, at the age of 35, is still performing so well at international level. South Africans can be very proud of him,” he said.
Erasmus used six forwards and two backs on the bench rather than the traditional five-three split at the World Cup, enabling South Africa to unleash six fresh forwards in the second half.
Apart from a specialist scrum-half, Steyn was the only other back chosen for all the key matches in Japan, covering the full-back, centre and fly-half positions.
He replaced Willemse late in a 36-20 bonus-point victory over Argentina in Buenos Aires last Saturday and head coach Jacques Nienaber hailed his “calmness”.
- Tightest title race -
A prodigious long-range goal kicker, Steyn slotted two conversions, one from the touchline, to put the match beyond the reach of the Pumas.
In the tightest title race since the southern hemisphere championship was launched 10 years ago, New Zealand and South Africa have 14 points each, Australia 10 and Argentina nine.
Defending champions New Zealand play Australia in Auckland eight hours before the Durban match begins, with the different time zones making simultaneous kick-offs impractical.
Among multiple scenarios is one in which all four teams could finish with 14 points, leaving points difference, head-to-head records or number of tries to separate them.
Nienaber labelled the Buenos Aires match a “semi-final” and says the rematch in Durban is a “final” as South Africa seek to win the Rugby Championship for a second time.
“Winning in Buenos Aires is no guarantee we will succeed again in Durban. Argentina are one of those teams whose patriotism radiates in their performances.”
Apart from Steyn, Nienaber has made one other change with 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit returning to the loose forward trio in place of Franco Mostert.
Fit-again hooker Bongi Mbonambi is among five changes to a bench which includes six forwards and just two backs.
Argentina coach Michael Cheika has made two backline changes to the team that started last weekend with centre Matias Moroni and 34-year-old winger Juan Imhoff promoted.
The Australian is upbeat despite the home loss to South Africa coming a couple of weeks after a 53-3 mauling in New Zealand.
“Since arriving in South Africa we had our best training session in some time. The environment will be difficult, but we intend to enjoy it,” said Cheika.