NOBODY likes to have a pre-planned week off interrupted by a call from work, but, in the circumstances, Kyle Steyn was happy to jump into action when David Edge (who looks after logistics and operations for the Scotland team) got in touch on the Monday morning before the national team’s final Six Nations match against England at Twickenham.
He was being called into the Scotland training squad as emergency back-three cover after injury had ruled out both Tommy Seymour and Blair Kinghorn.
“I was in bed with a cup of coffee, thinking about how little I was going to do that day, when I got a call at about 10.30am asking if I could be in Edinburgh by 12 noon,” recalls the player. “I said ‘yeah’ and gulped my coffee down real quick.”
“It was great to be there and a big learning opportunity. Another step up in intensity and the level of detail, I would say.”
It is standard practice to talk about international call-ups as a bolt from the blue, but in Steyn’s case it really was the sort of dramatic escalation which tends to be reserved for comic book stories.
Back in October 2017, Steyn was playing Currie Cup rugby for the Giquas when Scotland coach Gregor Townsend arrived in South Africa to watch Glasgow Warriors play the Toyota Cheetahs and got into a conversation with a representative of league sponsors Guinness. “This guy knew that I was Scottish-qualified – it was actually through somebody who was a mate of my dad – and he mentioned it to Gregor,” explains Steyn. “Gregor came back and passed it on to Scott Johnson and I suppose they had a look at my clips then spoke to my agent.”
Steyn trained a bit with the Warriors when he first arrived in Scotland at the start of this season, but with Huw Jones, Nick Grigg, Sam Johnson and Alex Dunbar all in the mix in his favoured position of outside-centre, plus Tommy Seymour, DTH van der Merwe, Niko Matawalu, Lee Jones, Rory Hughes and Robbie Nairn competing in his secondary position on the wing, the route into the team appeared to be littered with roadblocks, so he was sent off to play for Scotland on the international Sevens circuit for a few months.
That was until a combination of international call-ups, injuries and drop-offs in form conspired to create a vacancy for a powerful, ball-carrying outside back at the club, and Steyn didn’t need a second invitation to grab the opportunity with both hands.
He was called back from the Sevens programme and made his Warriors debut against Cardiff Blues in mid-February. He will remain on a Sevens contract until the end of the season but it seems unlikely that John Dalziel will have access to the player again. He has signed a 12-moth deal with Glasgow for next season.
“He’s played a lot at centre so all the footie I had seen of him was at 13, and we were keen to bring him in because we know that during the Six Nations we’ve got a heap of people who can be out,” said Warriors head coach Dave Rennie. “He’s taken his opportunity really well and it is exciting for us long term, beyond this year.
“Obviously, with Arge [Dunbar] going down to Newcastle and the injuries we’ve had in midfield, it has been really good for us. We’ve seen a lot of him and we like what we see.”
Steyn had played just three games for Warriors when that Scotland call came. While he was never really in contention to play at Twickenham, it was still a massive confidence boost and an excellent learning opportunity to spend a week in that environment.
“Rugby’s a funny game like that, it’s just the bounce of the ball, unfortunately,” he reflects. “The national team got hit with a couple of injuries and all of them seemed to be in the back-line at the same time. Opportunities come and you just have to grab them with both hands.”
At the ripe old age of 25, Steyn is hardly a veteran yet, but neither is he a spring-chicken when you compare him to the likes of 21-year-old Stafford McDowall, with whom he formed a formidably powerful centre partnership against Toyota Cheetahs – scoring a try each – on Saturday night.
“I did four years of studying and then picked up a pro contract playing for the university team,” he explains. “I suppose we all have our paths and mine was a bit of a later one.
“The plan was definitely to get over here [to play in Europe] if I could at some point, but when I was younger I didn’t know how to make that connection – I didn’t really have any contacts and I didn’t have an agent. So, while I think a lot of guys have come straight out of school into pro contracts, I opted against that and decided to study for a BSc in physiology and biochemistry [at the famous Stellenbosch University], and then do a teaching postgrad after that.
“In South Africa, the Varsity Cup gets a lot of coverage and a lot of traction, so I thought I was killing two birds with one stone. I thought I could get a degree, hopefully get it done early and on time, and have the freedom to focus on rugby.”
After a slow start, his pro career is beginning to build some real momentum. And with Glasgow shaping up for a busy end to the season, Steyn is very aware that there is likely to be more opportunities to make his mark in the weeks ahead, and Saracens away this coming Saturday in the last eight of the European Champions Cup is the next target.
Grigg and Jones are not going to be fit in time, so the experienced option would be Pete Horne at inside-centre with Sam Johnson moving from 12 to 13, but the form of McDowall and Steyn means that either or both could force their way onto contention.
And if he does manage to establish himself as a regular in the Warriors team before the end of the season, then who is to say Steyn can’t become a contender for the World Cup.
“Who does not play rugby and doesn’t have that as a dream?” he asks, rhetorically. “But I can’t get too far ahead of myself. The most important thing for me is to get my head down and keep working here at Glasgow. We’ve got a big finish to the season coming and the boys are focused on that, so I’m just making sure I’m doing my best here.”