After a 2016 season of mixed fortunes, Elton Jantjies again finds himself at the crossroads, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
‘Elton [Jantjies] has been down in the valleys before, but he’s proved he can climb his way back to the top of the mountain!’
This was the confident assertion of Lions assistant coach Swys de Bruin as he reflected on a 2016 season of ups and downs for the unpredictable flyhalf.
At the end of May last year, Jantjies was at the top of his game. During a Super Rugby season in which the Lions went on to finish as runners-up, the 26-year-old hardly put a foot wrong. With the Lions embracing a brand of rugby that encouraged quick ball and dynamic attack, he was in his element, his confidence sky-rocketing as he helped orchestrate win after impressive win for the Johannesburg-based franchise.
Even before the end of the Super Rugby season, Jantjies was heralded far and wide as the leading South African flyhalf, and an extended run in the Bok No 10 jersey was expected to be a fait accompli.
In the end, Jantjies earned a start in six successive Tests for the Boks after Pat Lambie was laid low wih serious concussion sustained in the opening clash of the year against Ireland. For Jantjies, it was an opportunity to make the Bok No 10 jersey his own, but a fairytale run of form and return to the international arena quickly deviated off the expected script.
With the Boks seemingly caught between two styles of play, which saw an ambition to be more expansive counter-balanced by the need for pragmatism on the demanding Test stage, Jantjies looked equally conflicted. Although there were brief moments of typical Jantjies magic – such as his perfectly-weighted crosskick to set up a try for JP Pietersen in the third Test against Ireland – he
battled to perform with any real consistency.
And as the Boks struggled to establish gainline dominance, while often finding themselves outmuscled at the collision areas, Jantjies had very little front-foot ball to work with. Gradually, he regressed into a shadow of his Super Rugby self. Down on confidence, he ultimately endured a nightmare game against the All Blacks in Christchurch in mid-September, and subsequently relinquished the No 10 jersey until the final Test of the year against Wales, where he again produced an erratic performance.
Unsurprisingly, then, it would have been a rather bittersweet affair when the Lions playmaker was named as South Africa’s Super Rugby Player of the Year at an awards function at the end of October.
By no means should Jantjies be seen as a scapegoat for the Springboks’ woes last year, but in a cut-throat South African rugby system, there will be understandable questions over his ability – or lack thereof – to make the step up to Test level.
However, if there is one thing Jantjies has proved, it’s that he is blessed with immense mental fortitude. After all, in 2010, he was named SA Rugby’s Young Player of the Year. The year after, he made his Super Rugby debut at the age of 20, and earned the Man of the Match award as the Lions emerged victorious in the 2011 Currie Cup final.
That same year he featured in a 51-man World Cup training squad, while in 2012, he made his Springbok debut off the bench against the Wallabies.
Yet, despite this whirlwind start to his career, it didn’t translate to immediate success at Test level. Beyond that, Jantjies then faced considerable challenges on and off the field in 2013, where he struggled to make an impression during a short-lived stay at the Stormers, while dealing with the loss of his beloved father, Thomas.
And although his career appeared to stall during his time at the Stormers, he returned to the Lions as a battle-hardened player, while it was at these crossroads that De Bruin first encountered Jantjies.
‘When Elton came back from the Stormers, his confidence was very low,’ De Bruin recalls. ‘I’d also just joined up with the Lions [as an assistant coach], but very quickly we built up an understanding and relationship. The one thing I said to him was that he needed to be the general at flyhalf. It was important for him to rebuild his confidence, and he’s really done that over the past couple of years.
‘It was also important for us as coaches to have confidence in him and provide positive reinforcement, and he’s thrived in that environment at the Lions,’ De Bruin adds.
‘He’s really developed a strong combination and understanding with scrumhalves such as Faf [de Klerk] and Ross [Cronje]. He’s undoubtedly one of the best attacking flyhalves I’ve seen, and I also believe he’s grown his all-round game nicely.’
If he is to succeed at Test level, though, Jantjies would surely be the first to acknowledge that his kicking, defence and game management requires further refinement. Indeed, at the start of a new year, he again finds himself at the crossroads of his career. The question has to be asked: Does he have it in him to once again head in the direction that leads him back to the Boks in 2017?
De Bruin is one man who believes Jantjies will come up with the correct answers.
‘I think some of the criticism Elton received was really unfair when he was with the Boks [in 2016]. Obviously it wasn’t always easy for him to adapt to a different plan and style of play. He has such a natural feel for the game, and at the Lions we always aim to generate quick ball and get it into his hands as quickly as possible because he has so much ability with ball in hand.
‘I’m confident he will be able to get back to being the No 1 flyhalf in the country.’
– This article first appeared in the January 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine