Elton continues to evolve

The evolution of Elton Jantjies’s all-round game bodes well for the Springboks ahead of the Rugby Championship, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Lions fever has taken hold of South African rugby this season. The performances of the Johannesburg-based side have been somewhat of a saving grace in terms of providing a feel-good factor during a time when many supporters appeared to be increasingly disillusioned by the state of affairs in the game.

Before Super Rugby kicked off in February, there was a prevailing sentiment that suggested South African rugby was desperately in need of a good-news story. After a failed World Cup campaign, reports of infighting among SA Rugby’s top leadership group and ongoing chaos in EP Rugby, there was a definite sense of doom, gloom and disillusionment among supporters.

The Lions always seemed likely to be the side that would provide a glimmer of hope with their vibrant brand of rugby, but few could have expected them to take the competition by storm quite like they have.

And at a time when off-field matters were continuing to blight proceedings in SA rugby, a new Super Rugby season provided the opportunity for South African franchise players to regain some lost pride.

In this regard, almost every player in the Lions squad can take a bow, but I’d suggest none have been more influential than Jantjies, who has come of age in a team set-up that favours his strong running and passing game.

His performances over the past two weekends of playoff rugby have also illustrated just how far he has come as an all-round flyhalf who can run the game and vary his play to great effect.

Despite Jantjies’s outstanding form during the first part of the Super Rugby season that saw the Lions star emerge as the form flyhalf in South African rugby, Pat Lambie was entrusted with the Bok No 10 jersey for the first Test of the year against Ireland.

It was an understandable move considering Lambie’s experience, strong kicking game and solid defence, which are all so important at Test level. And had it not been for an unfortunate concussion that then ruled Lambie out of action, Jantjies may well have been set to predominantly play off the bench over the three-Test series.

Although Jantjies was the obvious replacement, Bok coach Allister Coetzee called for the 25-year-old to display strong game management and marshal proceedings with a varied approach that would see intelligent kicking and decision-making complemented by his natural attacking strengths.

There were encouraging signs of Jantjies beginning to embrace this added responsibility during the final Test against Ireland, but it’s really been his performances for the Lions during the high-pressured knockout games that should have Coetzee beaming from ear to ear.

Jantjies produced a composed all-round performance when the Lions thrashed the Crusaders in their recent quarter-final, while he delivered a mesmerising Man of the Match display against the Highlanders this past weekend.

Beyond his 41 running metres (which included one clean break and saw him beat three defenders), Jantjies completed 22 passes and made seven kicks.

In particular, though, it was his clever use of the boot that bodes well for the Boks. During the June series against Ireland, Coetzee spoke at length of the importance of using the kick as an attacking weapon and about being able to identify that when there wasn’t space out wide, a little chip in behind the defence could work wonders.

This is what Jantjies clearly identified against the Highlanders. A pin-point cross-kick to Jaco Kriel resulted in one try, while another neat little chip enabled lock Franco Mostert to gather and score in the second half. Jantjies’s goal-kicking has also been outstanding in the playoffs, which is another area of his game that required improvement ahead of the Rugby Championship.

To be fair, though, one area of concern does remain around Jantjies’s defence, with the Lions flyhalf missing five out of his 12 tackle attempts at Ellis Park on Saturday. He has also missed 32 tackles in total this season, which sees him ranked fifth out of all the Super Rugby players.

It’s an aspect of his game that needs some attention, but not one that can’t be successfully addressed. When I interviewed Jantjies earlier this year for a feature in SA Rugby magazine, he spoke of his determination to continually keep improving, and his desire to put in whatever hard yards were required in training.

Indeed, there have been clear signs that Jantjies has the ability to evolve his game as a more well-rounded flyhalf who would be able to control a game at Test level. It’s a good sign for the Boks as they get set to head into action once again.

Lest we forget, when Lions fever fades into the background after the completion of Super Rugby this weekend, the Springboks will soon swing into action against Argentina on 20 August. And if the Boks are to succeed in the Rugby Championship, there is no doubt that they need Jantjies to deliver as a flyhalf who can perform not only with panache, but pragmatism too.

Photo: Christiaan Kotze/BackpagePix

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Craig Lewis