Johan Ackermann feels that Elton Jantjies's leadership and game management will be crucial to the Lions' success over the next seven matches. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Jantjies won a Currie Cup title with the Golden Lions in 2011. He played two Tests for the Springboks in 2012. His patent talent caught the eye of the Stormers coaches, and he was lured to play rugby in the Cape in 2013. And yet, despite all that ability, he never produced a series of game-shaping performances. His biggest weakness was a lack of consistency.
Until now. Following a stint with the NTT Shining Arcs in Japan, Jantjies has returned to the Lions a new player. A man rather than a boy. A leader.
This has been evident in his seven starts for the Lions in 2015. His coaches have been thrilled to see him taking control. The Johannesburg-based franchise finished the first part of their Vodacom Super Rugby campaign with five wins from nine, a record that included three wins in Australasia as well as the prize scalps of the Bulls and Sharks. While a collective strength has powered them into some winning positions, it's often fell to Jantjies to apply the finishing touch.
Ackermann feels that Jantjies is starting to realise his potential, and hopes that the flyhalf will maintain his terrific form in the second part of the Lions' campaign.
'We've always believed in Elton, and it's been great to see him making the most of his recent opportunities,' Ackermann told SARugbymag.co.za. 'It was a big decision to leave his family and go to Japan, and he's had to mature in a short space of time.
'I heard he was a leader within their club, and he's been a leader since returning to the Lions. He takes ownership of his position and really sets an example. He's also in great physical condition, and will do extra work on his own to ensure he stays in shape.
'All in all, he's in a great space, and the only challenge that remains is consistency,' added the Lions coach. 'He's been good for us in the past few weeks, but he has to show some consistency over the next seven. That's the key for him. He has all the skills to be a success.'
Jantjies has thrived in a Lions' set-up that embraces a balance between attack and defence. While he's been at the heart of some outstanding running displays, he has also shown some ticker on defence.
As for his goal-kicking, the stats tell a story. He wasn't especially accurate in the last match against the Sharks (three from seven attempts), but still boasts a 79% success rate this season.
The Lions will be counting on Jantjies to be on target when they host the Cheetahs this weekend. Ackermann's side is coming off a bye, and in theory they should be the fresher of the two teams.
And yet, they will be under pressure to fire from the outset. The Cheetahs will be hurting after a narrow loss to the Reds, and will want to prove a point. The Lions, of course, need to win in order to stay on course for a play-off place.
'It would be awesome to make the play-offs, but I'm wary of setting that goal right now,' said Ackermann. 'We said at the start of the season that we wanted to improve on our 2014 showing, both in terms of the number of wins [seven] and the final log position [12th].
'It's going to be tough if you look at who we are playing, and if you think that the other South African sides like the Stormers and Bulls are playing good rugby. That South African conference will be fiercely contested. Fortunately, destiny is still in our own hands. If we keep grinding away, and picking up the wins, then we will give ourselves a chance of making that top six.'
The Cheetahs have been the worst of the South African teams in 2015, and currently sit at 14th on the overall log. Nevertheless, Ackermann feels that his team can't afford to be complacent.
'There will be a lot of expectation considering we just had a bye and are playing at home. But what we've seen in the past few weeks is that there are no guarantees. Any team can win on the day.
'That's why I've told the players to be ready for the challenge. We really needed the bye after nine games, but I've noticed that some teams tend to lose the week after a bye. We can't take the Cheetahs lightly. They are a good side, and perhaps they're a bit like us in that a few soft moments have cost them a win or two this season.
'It's an important game, and a big challenge.'
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images