Herschel Jantjies has been humbled by the fanfare that’s followed his meteoric rise, writes DYLAN JACK in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Jantjies knows the importance of remaining ‘level-headed’ after a breakthrough in 2019 saw him end the year as a Rugby Championship and World Cup winner. In that context, it’s unbelievable the dynamic scrumhalf was not even in the Springbok conversation in 2018.
Back then, he was thought of as more of a future star as Ivan van Zyl, Embrose Papier and Cobus Reinach looked to be battling it out to deputise for Faf de Klerk.
In fact, while those four starred for their clubs in Super Rugby and the English Premiership in 2017, Jantjies was playing for the University of the Western Cape and helping them win the Varsity Shield.
However, a 2019 to remember saw Jantjies establish himself as an integral member of the Stormers’ Super Rugby squad, before going on to play a crucial role in the Springboks’ Rugby Championship and World Cup-winning teams. To boot, he was nominated for World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year award.
‘I never saw it coming,’ Jantjies tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I was just enjoying the opportunity to play Super Rugby and be in a starting position. It was what I worked for and eventually I got the dividends of the hard work.
‘The more I played, the more I started games, the more I grew in confidence. Eventually, I got the call-up to join the alignment camps. From there on, things got exciting. I made my debut, got selected for the World Cup, and having the medal is an amazing feeling and a dream come true.’
When SA Rugby magazine caught up with Jantjies, he was raring to get back in action for the Stormers after breaking his leg just before the Super Rugby season was halted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘I think if I didn’t break my leg, I would have said it was frustrating. But with me being out and not missing out on any rugby, it was probably a blessing in disguise. We started off well, we had the momentum and who knows how our season could have turned out. But not missing any rugby while injured is probably a plus.
‘I am 100% after my injury. I had a problem with my ankle too but I am completely fine now. The first few days of contact training were tough. You obviously get used to it the more you do it.’
Jantjies’ Springbok career got off to a dream start, as he scored a brace on his run-on debut against the Wallabies and followed that up by scoring a last-minute equaliser from the bench against the All Blacks in Wellington.
‘Obviously, every rugby player needs confidence,’ Jantjies says about the start to his Test career. ‘The more confident a guy is, the better he plays and performs. I gained a lot of confidence out of that game. I still had a lot to learn – I still do – but luckily I had guys like Faf and Cobus there. I just took that confidence and with the rest of the stuff I learned, it helped me.
‘Winning the Rugby Championship gave me even more confidence, just by being part of that group – even though I didn’t play that much after the New Zealand game. It still gave me so much confidence being in that environment and learning from the guys.’
Jantjies’ performances earned him a place as one of the three scrumhalves in the Springboks’ 31-man World Cup squad and he was flooded with messages of congratulations from his hometown of Kylemore, outside Setllenbosch.
‘It was amazing from the messages and videos I got. When I made my debut, there was a big screen put up at the rugby club in Kylemore and everyone went to watch the game there. I saw videos from that, and I’m getting goosebumps just speaking about it now.
‘They did the same thing with the World Cup. When I got home, I sort of had a mini trophy tour of my own with my medal around my neck. My dad and I were on the back of a bakkie driving through Kylemore saying thank you to the people. It was humbling and amazing.’
The Springboks were the first team to arrive in Japan to give themselves the best chance of adapting to the country’s sweltering heat and high humidity.
‘That first week was tough,’ Jantjies admits. ‘It was a wake-up call in a way. I don’t think any of us – except for the guys that have played there – knew how tough it was going to be with the humidity.
‘It’s one thing playing in wet weather, but playing with a slimy ball is a different thing. I struggled in that first week. I tried everything: tape, spray, glue. It definitely helped going over there early. The more we trained in that weather the better the handling got.’
The early arrival probably helped the Springboks bounced back from an opening round loss to the All Blacks, winning the rest of their pool games and progressing to the final by beating Japan and Wales.
There they met Eddie Jones’ England and an epic final in Yokohama was ultimately decided by two wonder-tries from Bok wings Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe.
‘I was like a fan. I was jumping up and down. It was crazy,’ Jantjies recalls. ‘I got on for the last three minutes, but it felt like I had played a whole game. I knew I just had to execute my job and not try anything stupid or silly. In those last few phases, I was just looking at the clock, looking at the ball, looking at the clock again.
‘When I saw time was over, I looked for Polly [Handre Pollard], passed to him and he kicked it out. It was probably more relief that it was over and – after being in Japan for nine weeks – that the hard work had paid off.’
What followed in South Africa was pandemonium as hundreds of thousands of fans flooded the streets as the Boks took the Webb Ellis Cup on a week-long trophy tour.
‘When we won the World Cup, it didn’t really sink in because it was just us and a few family members at the hotel. When we got home … It’s something I can’t describe.
‘Seeing OR Tambo packed, then going through the various cities and ending off in Cape Town. It was really amazing seeing all the people. I don’t know if they all got paid that day, because nobody worked. You could feel the love and the support from everyone. It was amazing to see a sport like rugby can bring so many people together.’
Like most challenges in his career, Jantjies has taken his new-found fame in his stride.
‘In the beginning, with all the attention and people recognising you, it was overwhelming. I tried to not let it get to me, because I knew I still had to come back and perform in Super Rugby. For me, it was about focusing on getting back to full fitness and returning to the Stormers to play my best rugby.
‘It has been really humbling. Coming from playing at UWC, staying at the koshuis [residence] and then all of a sudden, winning the World Cup, your life changes because a lot of people want a piece of you.
‘What is important is that I stay level-headed and keep my feet on the ground. I think with the people I surround myself with – my family and friends in Kylemore – it comes automatically. In a way, it has changed my life, but it hasn’t changed who I am.’
Having recently signed a new two-year deal with the Stormers, Jantjies wants to impart some of his knowledge with his younger teammates, but is also aware that he still has room for improvement.
‘With younger guys being there I always try at every single training to learn as much as I can but also try implementing what I have learned from the Springboks at the Stormers. It’s not about me being at the Stormers and now I am the boss or wanting to be seen as bigger than what I am.
‘I just want to try and help some of the younger guys that are in the squad, if they are struggling with something and I can help. There is a lot that I still need to learn and I can learn from a younger guy. I want to give it my all, stay fit and play quality rugby.’
*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!