Herschel Jantjies’ emergence as the standout local scrumhalf this Vodacom Super Rugby season has been a revelation, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
After the round-15 clash between the Stormers and Highlanders at Newlands, legendary All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith posed arm-in-arm for a photo with opposite number Herschel Jantjies.
Smith posted the picture on social media as he highlighted how much he had enjoyed playing against Jantjies, while acknowledging the performance of the Stormers’ upstart with the caption, ‘Little men doing big things’.
Indeed, it has been a season of ‘big things’ for the 23-year-old. Coming into this season, Jantjies had featured in just one Super Rugby game.
A Province boy through and through, the Paul Roos old boy came through the WP Academy, playing at U19, U21 and Rugby Challenge levels for the side, before featuring prominently in the Currie Cup in 2018.
Yet, in the greater scheme of things, Jantjies came into this Super Rugby season as something of an unknown entity. The more experienced Jano Vermaak was expected to spend most of the time in the Stormers’ No 9 jersey, but then injury struck and suddenly an opportunity arose for Jantjies.
For one, let’s rewind to the second week of Super Rugby. The Stormers had suffered an embarrassing 40-3 defeat by the Bulls in the opening round of action, and emotions were running high, with critics delivering jabs and jibes at a rate of knots.
It heaped pressure on the Stormers as they came up against the Lions at Newlands the next week, only to find themselves trailing by five points as the clock wound past the regulation 80 minutes.
Yet, the Stormers launched a sequence of last-gasp attacking onslaughts in the hope of salvaging a result. As time ticked towards the 85th minute, the ball popped out from the back of a five-metre scrum. Jantjies – on as a substitute – snapped up possession, cut back off his right foot and wormed his way over the tryline next to the posts (as you can enjoy watching again below).
The Stormers and their remaining supporters celebrated deliriously. For the Stormers and South African rugby, a star was born by the name of Herschel Jerome Jantjies.
It’s a particularly good-news story in a national context when one considers that Bok coach Rassie Erasmus has made no secret of the fact he has been looking for a local scrumhalf to make a claim for selection that is impossible to ignore.
Last year, the Bok coach placed his faith largely in England-based Faf de Klerk, and there’s no doubt the Sale Sharks star remains the front-runner to wear the No 9 jersey at the World Cup later this year. However, it’s still not quite as clear who will serve as his backup.
The likes of Ivan van Zyl, Embrose Papier, Louis Schreuder and even Ross Cronjé, who were involved with the Boks at varying stages last year, have not set the Super Rugby scene alight this season. In the meantime, Cobus Reinach has been a standout performer for the Northampton Saints throughout the 2018-19 season and has done everything within his power to earn a nation recall.
However, Jantjies – virtually as a bolt from the blue – is suddenly being spoken of as a potential Springbok contender, and it was no surprise to see both him and Reinach included in the first preliminary national training camp last week.
Quite simply, the young halfback appears to have a natural feel for the game.
His speed off the mark and ability to snipe around the fringes is rather reminiscent of De Klerk, and he is clearly an instinctive player. Despite his diminutive stature (he weighs in at around 74kg, while standing 1.64m ‘tall’), Jantjies is a terrier on defence, runs strong support lines and isn’t afraid to take the defence on, while he boasts a powerful pass (naturally).
Jantjies admits his kicking game remains a work in progress. His game sense and decision-making will only improve with experience, but he otherwise looks to be a rather complete player. He has been the surprise package of this season and his rise to prominence on the South African rugby horizon could not have come at a better time.
Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix