From the mag: Leaving a legacy at the Lions

As a student of the game, Elton Jantjies is one of the most inspiring and influential players in South African rugby, writes CRAIG LEWIS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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Jantjies is a self-confessed ‘workaholic’. That much was evident when just a few days into lockdown, a video emerged on social media showing him running through a sequence of tackling drills in wet and muddy conditions in his garden.

Jantjies’ garage had also been converted into a make-shift gym, allowing the Springbok and Lions flyhalf to continue his strength and conditioning work even when confined to his home.

In addition, the 30-year-old has used the time out of action to review various trends in the game.

Yet, beyond that, Jantjies is also a loving family man; many of his social media videos showing his young sons working out with their father. In one Instagram post, a gym session looks to have turned into more of a dance routine as three of them move to the music in their garage.

When SA Rugby magazine caught up with Jantjies, official approval had just been granted for South Africa’s professional teams to return to non-contact training towards the end of July. For Jantjies, the time away from on-field competition has also served as an important reminder as to the importance of having a balance between rugby and life away from the game.

‘I’m a workaholic,’ he admits. ‘I train non-stop and try to get better physically and mentally. I also enjoy studying the game as closely as possible. But my wife and kids bring another factor to my life; and playing with my sons and trying to instil certain values into their lives is something that’s very important to me. It’s the stuff that I benefited from when I was a laaitie; things like hard work and discipline.

‘I have a lot of plans when it comes to rugby and it’s something I try to put 110% into, but that family life helps bring balance to what I do and takes your mind off the game.’

In our conversation, Jantjies’ carefully considered life and career plan is a recurring theme. This much was also evidenced during lockdown when the highly regarded playmaker was linked with French clubs, which came at a time when SA Rugby had opened a well-publicised exit window, allowing players to opt out of contracts in favour of overseas deals.

Yet, Jantjies never swayed in his thinking.

‘My plans have never changed … For me, it was never going to be only about financial considerations. There was a plan behind everything, and I felt if I had left the Lions now, I would have been going off my own plan. I wanted to build on my time at the union, and then ensure I am in the best possible space to hopefully represent the Springboks against the British & Irish Lions next year.

‘I’m quite a goal-driven person, and my goals are set out at the Lions, where I’m the captain,’ he adds. ‘I can’t just pack up my bags and leave, that’s not the way I do things or who I am. There has to be a plan. No 1 for me is playing for South Africa, and doing whatever possible to put myself in line to keep achieving that.

‘I think that meant I stayed with the Lions, and I also want to leave a good legacy at the union. Of course money comes into the equation, but that’s not that No 1 for me. As long as my family buys into my decisions and goals, and as long as I have the right people around me, then I’m happy.’

Swys de Bruin, a coach who has previously worked closely with Jantjies at Lions and Springbok level, warms to the subject when asked about the ‘evolution of Elton’ as a player and leader.

‘I remember when Elton came back to the Lions after a stint with the Stormers in 2013, he was down in confidence. But from the first moment I started working with him, I realised this guy has true potential. He is the first one out on the field to train, and is the last to leave. He has so much self-belief, it runs out of his ears.

‘Even when the team lost, and he often then seemed to be the scapegoat on social media, nothing rattled him. For me, the mark of a champion is not only being able to handle pressure on the field, but also all the pressures that come with it off the field.

‘Elton’s the kind of guy who will go out for a run on Christmas Eve at 5 o’clock. When I saw stuff like that I used to tell him “champions train when others rest”, and he’d laugh. But from a rugby-brain point of view, he is just something else, and when you look back at the tries we scored at the Lions, he was instrumental in so many of them.’

While Jantjies has occasionally been viewed by some as a bit of a maverick on and off the field, it’s evident that misconceptions have often clouded judgements.

Ultimately, the desire to become the best possible version of himself is what drives Jantjies on a carefully considered plan of action.

‘In the modern times, many players will wait to be told what to do, and it’s hard to find those sort of players who do things differently, but Elton is one of those,’ De Bruin reflects. ‘For example, Elton would come and sit with me before a game, and an hour and a half later we would still be discussing strategies, That’s how passionate he is about the game. I really loved coaching Elton.’

Speaking to this point, one of the lesser-known stories revolves around the vital supporting part Jantjies played at last year’s World Cup.

Even when he wasn’t included in the match-day squad as the playoffs rolled around, Jantjies spent time analysing opposing teams and players, while fulfilling a role at training as part of the ‘shadow team’ that would provide opposition for the selected 23 who would be playing that weekend.

For example, ahead of the final, word has is that Jantjies had looked closely at the performances and nuances of England playmakers George Ford and Owen Farrell and pinpoint aspects of play that could be expected.

Jantjies reflects fondly on the World Cup journey despite not featuring during the knockout stages. It’s the mark of the ultimate team man.

‘I learned a lot during that time at the World Cup; it gave me a lot of knowledge in terms of how other teams and players do things. If you weren’t playing, you would look to replicate the opposition. I spent a lot of time looking closely in detail at what players like George Ford, Richie Mo’unga, Beauden Barrett and Dan Biggar were doing.

‘It was more from a team point of view, trying to pick up what works for them, and what doesn’t work from them. I wrote a lot of stuff down, or tried to find ways to help from what I’d seen as a flyhalf sitting on the side of the field, and to identify things we could take forward as a team. I really enjoyed that environment at the Springboks where we all communicated and shared ideas, which was all aimed at finding solutions.’

Jantjies has embraced a new role as captain of the Lions, and he used the time during lockdown to reflect on trends of top teams, and work out what the Johannesburg-based side could fine-tune when they return to action.

‘The opportunity to be captain is one that excites me, but I don’t think Elton as an individual will change,’ he says. ‘I don’t see it as more pressure, I’ve still got my own standards to live up to as a player, regardless if I’m the captain, and so hopefully I can lead through actions. I’d love to be able to share some of my knowledge and things I’ve learned over the last few years with some of the younger players.

‘I just want to see growth in the younger generation, how they develop daily on the rugby field, and to realise that external stuff is not going to make you better as a rugby player. It’s about spending time watching rugby, learning from coaches and training hard, that is the only you can become better as a rugby player.

‘External factors will always be there, but it’s just important to channel your energy in the right direction,’ Jantjies adds. ‘We’re all young and capable of becoming better rugby players, and while we’ll never go away from the way we play and our DNA at the Lions, we can perhaps implement certain things that are beneficial.’

And what of Jantjies’ personal plans going forward?

‘I just want to try and be the best flyhalf I can be, and the best leader who leads by action and example in training and matches,’ he states emphatically. ‘And of course the big goal is to be part of the British & Irish Lions tour next year and play against the best in the world.’

*This article first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!

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Student of the game

Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen says: ‘Elton is immense for us, he’s a true Lion in heart and action, and that’s great for everyone to see. The one thing you can never question about Elton is his work ethic, and he is willing to put his body through a lot of conditioning. That’s reflected in the way that he trains so hard, but he hardly every gets injured because he’s in such good shape. It’s a great example for the younger players.

‘He’s also a true student of the game. He sometimes sends me messages at 11 o’clock at night wanting to discuss something he’d picked up during analysis, or also asking if I’d seen this or that, what do I think of this or maybe we could have tried that. There’s no off button when it comes to Elton. It’s great for us as coaches to have that voice within the team that understands how the Lions work and how we want to play.

‘What we like about Elton is that he’s goal-oriented and very specific in his detail. When he starts talking, it’s big into details, roles and responsibilities. He leads those type of discussions, and although he’s maybe not the kind of captain who will be all about psyching you up, but he’s definitely the kind of leader who will tell you where you’re supposed to be and what you should be doing. He leads through action, but when he does talk, it’s specific and outcome-based, and people listen.’

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Craig Lewis