Elton Jantjies must use the three-Test series against France to finally prove he is ready to settle at Test level, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
During the first half of last year, there was no player more popular in South African rugby. As the influential pivot in an ambitious and exciting Lions team, Jantjies emerged as the star of the show.
Playing with poise and swagger, he appeared to have well and truly come of age, and the calls from all corners were for the Lions flyhalf to be installed as the Springbok No 10.
Initially, though, Allister Coetzee seemed to hold a view that stood in contrast to the popular opinion. While the Bok coach hailed the evolution of Elton, he had no hesitation in picking Pat Lambie as his first-choice flyhalf for the opening Test of the season against Ireland.
In explaining that selection, Coetzee pointed to Lambie’s strengths of game management, experience, consistent kicking and sound defence. In short, it was a case of the Bok coach opting for reliability over form.
Yet, as fate would have it, Lambie was laid low with a serious concussion midway through the first half of the season-opener, with Jantjies coming on as his replacement, while going on to start seven Tests in 2016.
Unfortunately, we all know what happened from there. In a Bok team seemingly caught between which style of play to settle on, no one looked more unsure of himself than Jantjies, who battled on defence, failed to fire on attack, and struggled to find consistency with his kicking (both at goal and out of hand).
In the end, it was hardly that surprising. The brands of rugby embraced by the Lions and Boks were so far apart it was never going to be easy for Jantjies to adjust in what was essentially his first full season of exposure to Test rugby.
On more than one occasion this year, Coetzee has attempted to make a convincing case that he has learned from the mistakes of last year. It now remains to be seen whether one of those lessons will enable him to get the best out of Jantjies, and indeed, if the 26-year-old himself has learned from some of the setbacks faced during his first extended exposure to Test rugby.
To Jantjies’ credit, his performances for the Lions this season certainly seem to suggest he has put last year’s Test match disappointments behind him.
With Lions coach Johan Ackermann affording Jantjies the freedom to play his natural game, the mercurial flyhalf has again impressed with certain nuances such as the manner in which he attacks space, times his offloads and often kicks into space with deft chip kicks over the defence.
After Jantjies led the Lions to a 51-14 mauling of the Bulls towards the end of May, Ackermann provided this revealing insight into what makes the player tick: ‘I have always said Elton has got what it takes to play at the highest level … He plays with confidence and freedom, and if he is given that platform and if the players around him can understand him, then he can be the type of player to match [All Blacks flyhalf] Beauden [Barrett], in terms of execution and decision-making.’
It’s a big call when you consider that Barrett is simply in a class of his own and is increasingly finding himself spoken of as the sort of all-round flyhalf who now rivals legendary All Black Dan Carter.
However, in terms of physical attributes and style of play, a very interesting comparison can be drawn between Jantjies and Chiefs playmaker Aaron Cruden. Both players have featured in 12 Super Rugby games this season, while respectively completing 893 and 921 minutes of game-time.
As it stands, this is how Jantjies’ figures compare with those of Cruden, according to Opta stats. Points: 137 vs 73. Carries: 73 vs 80. Metres: 191 vs 307. Clean breaks: 6 vs 10. Defenders beaten: 13 vs 13. Passes: 308 vs 175. Open-play kicks: 90 vs 54. Tackle success: 71% vs 78%. Penalty goal success: 93% vs 92%. Conversion success: 79% vs 59%.
All in all, the numbers don't add up too badly for Jantjies, who has clearly served as an efficient distributor and hasn’t been afraid to put boot to ball. And while his defence remains a work-in-progress, his goal-kicking has clearly improved.
Jantjies has now been named as the only specialist flyhalf in the Bok squad, with Frans Steyn set to provide additional cover. Ultimately, it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that the three Tests against France in June could be a career-defining series for the Lions pivot.
Both Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie should be back to full fitness ahead of the Rugby Championship, but by then, Jantjies will have wanted to make the Bok No 10 jersey his own. Not many players are afforded such a second chance to do just that, and Jantjies needs to make the most of this opportunity.
His time is now.
Photo: Dirk Kotze/Gallo Images