Springbok scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies appears destined for greatness, writes JON CARDINELLI.
It’s not often that coaches hype up a rookie on the eve of his Test debut. Most are reluctant to raise the public’s expectations as that can place undue pressure on the newcomer. Mzwandile Stick couldn’t help himself, though, when he was asked about Herschel Jantjies before the game against Australia at Ellis Park earlier this year.
According to the Bok backline coach, who had been tracking the young scrumhalf’s progress since the 2018 Super Rugby season, South African rugby has unearthed a real gem.
‘The boy was given a chance by the Stormers and he grabbed it with both hands,’ Stick said. ‘That’s what life is all about – making the most of the opportunities you’ve been given.
‘Look at how consistent he’s been for the Stormers this past season. He’s got a good pass and when the opportunity arises, he will snipe and score brilliant tries. He’s got the potential to become one of our great scrumhalves.’
Stick went on to highlight the player’s appetite for a challenge. Eben Etzebeth, who played alongside Jantjies at the Stormers, marvelled at how far the 23-year-old had come in the space of 12 months.
‘I asked him where he was at this time last year,’ Etzebeth said. ‘He was in the Currie Cup mix, and occasionally limited to a role on the bench. I said, “Did you ever think that in a year’s time you would be starting for the Springboks and that you would be in line for a World Cup place?” He said no.
‘I watched him grow over the course of this year’s Stormers’ campaign. At first I didn’t know who he was or what he could do. He proved himself.’
Jantjies’ path wasn’t without its challenges, as he reveals he had to spend time playing varsity rugby to rebuild his confidence.
‘So I wasn’t always a Stormer. Ja, there was a time where I couldn’t even get game time at Western Province, so I went to the University of the Western Cape. My dad told me just to focus on controlling the controllables. I realised I couldn’t control what others were doing or thinking of me, but I can control how I perform and that will eventually lead to me getting to where I want to be.’
Since then he has enjoyed a meteoric rise and certainly lived up to the hype as a Test option. The crowd rose as one as the scrumhalf tracked his team’s break down the right-hand flank early in the game against Australia. He timed his supporting run to perfection – just as he had done many times in the Super Rugby season – and collected the final pass to score his first Test try.
Jantjies kicked well out of hand and made an important defensive play on the stroke of half-time. A well-timed tackle on No 8 Isi Naisarani knocked the ball loose and set up the Boks for an important turnover, enabling them to retain a 14-10 lead.
Then Jantjies delivered the blow that knocked Australia to the canvas. In the 62nd minute, he showed his speed and vision to break down the blindside and score in the corner. As one grizzled veteran in the Ellis Park press box opined, it was like watching Joost van der Westhuizen in his early years.
‘You can’t do anything else but praise him after the way he played,’ Erasmus said after the Boks’ 35-17 win. ‘If you look at where he was in the Currie Cup last year and then consider where he is as a Test player now … his service, his box kicks, the grit he showed on defence, as well as the way he attacked … it’s just awesome to see.
‘Hopefully he can grow from here. The confidence is certainly high. The opposition will get tougher and tougher as we get closer to the World Cup, but it’s a great start from him and he can be very proud.’
Erasmus backed Faf de Klerk to start at No 9 in the next game against the All Blacks in Wellington. Thanks to his performance against the Wallabies, Jantjies was selected on the bench.
Erasmus was forced to deploy Jantjies earlier than planned after De Klerk took a knock to the head in the 45th minute. Jantjies rose to the challenge, making some important tackles to keep the All Blacks in check. The Boks were staring down the barrel of defeat, until Cheslin Kolbe streaked down the right wing in the final minute of the game. Kolbe put up a kick for his teammates to chase and Jantjies was the man who beat the All Blacks to the high ball, regathered and scored.
Handre Pollard still needed to convert the try to earn the Boks an unlikely 16-16 draw. In the aftermath, however, Jantjies was widely credited for his part in a comeback that should echo through to the next meeting between the Boks and All Blacks at the World Cup on 21 September.
‘Try-scoring looks like it is a simple thing for him at this level,’ said Erasmus. ‘A lot of the mistakes we as coaches make sometimes is to put a lot of emphasis on the mechanical; slow and technical things like box-kicking. With a guy like him, you need to keep his natural game flowing and not overcoach him too much on all the technical things.
‘His service is nice and crisp, his feeling for the game and support play is a great thing that he brings to the game. If we keep encouraging that and don’t overcoach him in his weaknesses, he will keep improving and doing the things he did against the All Blacks.’
It may be some time yet before Jantjies fulfils Stick’s prophecy to become one of the all-time greats. For now, it should be enough to know that Erasmus has got some important answers to the scrumhalf question and the Boks have unearthed yet another special player with the ability to set the World Cup alight.
Photo: Mark Tantrum/Getty