WATCHING Kyle Steyn spearhead Glasgow Warriors’ destruction of Ulster on Friday night with a 50-metre break straight from kick-off, it was easy to forget that the South-African-born centre has only been in Dave Rennie’s squad for a matter of months. Signed as a back-up winger in February after DTH van der Merwe was injured, Steyn was initially on secondment from the Scotland Sevens set-up, there to be used by the Warriors if needs must. But since that introduction as supposedly a marginal, makeweight member of the squad, the 25-year-old has quickly become a more central figure – and not only because of his change of position.
Slicing Ulster open up the middle, and soon leading to Glasgow’s first of seven tries in their 50-20 triumph, Steyn’s break set the tone for a memorable evening. Even if it had not produced a score for Tommy Seymour a minute or so later, it would still have been an unequivocal statement of intent, declaring the Warriors’ willingness to go for the jugular in the PRO14 semi-final.
Heightened competition for places is one of the key reasons that Glasgow have made it into the final, and that is nowhere more apparent than at centre, where the cast list of starters has changed frequently. With Sam Johnson injured and Steyn five months away from joining, the league season began with Nick Grigg and Pete Horne as the starting midfield partnership and Alex Dunbar on the bench, while the Champions Cup campaign got under way with Huw Jones partnering Dunbar and Horne on the bench. The first 1872 Cup match in December saw Grigg and Horne together with Jones on the bench, and as recently as the end of January, Grigg and Stafford McDowell were the incumbents, with Dunbar as the replacement.
Injuries played a part in the frequent changes, of course, while Dunbar left some time ago, loaned out to Newcastle for the rest of the season. Even so, as thoughts turn to who will start against Leinster in the final, there is surely no doubt that Johnson and Steyn provide the best blend as the pivotal partnership in a back division that is peaking at exactly the right time.
“It was certainly the best that all the individuals have played,” Steyn agreed when asked if the performance against Ulster had been the backs’ best of the season. “Sam Johnson threw some unreal balls to Tommy, Hoggy was insane, Pete Horne came on and his vision was just as good. The Horne brothers’ telepathy was so good to see. It was a really good performance.
“Sammy Johnson looks like he’s as experienced as the rest of them and then you’ve got guys like Tommy and Hoggy outside and their experience and confidence has been invaluable. I’ve been able to learn a lot from them and it’s a massive privilege to be able to play with them.
“It’s just a matter of head down, and hard work. Being surrounded by the boys, there is a real calming influence that comes from that. We are quite close as a unit, the whole squad is, and that side of things makes it really easy for anyone to come in and fit in.”
Having played his way into the Glasgow squad, Steyn now hopes he can do the same when it comes to the Scotland group that will go to the World Cup, with Gregor Townsend having left one space for a back in the wider squad that he announced at the start of the month. Although uncapped, he is clearly in the head coach’s thoughts, having been called up to train with the squad before the Calcutta Cup match in March. The primary need in Japan is for a winger, according to Townsend, but Steyn’s versatility has to count in his favour – although, understandably with a final still to be played, it is not something he is dwelling on at present.
“There is certainly no shying away from it, but it is definitely not a focus,” he said. “With things like that, I think the best thing to do is just a focus on the team. The big focus was beating Ulster and now the focus has shifted to next week.
“It’s something I try not to think about. Obviously, it would be a massive honour for me. It’s certainly a big ambition I have. But from now it is just a matter of keeping the head down and keep working. It is a big task. To be able to have the final in your home city in these competitions doesn’t come round too often. That is the task in hand.
“The trick is that you really can’t think too far ahead of yourself. When I was in Dubai [with Scotland Sevens] I was probably just trying to get the sweat out of my face. Same thing here – we had a job to do and we did it. We know we can be better, so we’re just looking forward to next week.”
Presuming Steyn does keep his place, the crowd at Celtic Park, where the capacity is a little over 60,000, will be by some way the biggest he has ever played in front of. “I would say [the largest to date] was probably 20,000 in a university game, so I don’t know how much the students were actually watching,” he added. “They were full of beer. They were certainly making a lot of noise.
“I’ve not been to Celtic Park yet. But when you hear the noise that 10,000 fans at Scotstoun make, you get goosebumps thinking of the prospect of what 60,000 will do.”