Elton Jantjies on coping with criticism, a season filled with different challenges and his Springbok ambitions. Interview by: MARIETTE ADAMS.
The Lions narrowly missed out on a place in the Vodacom Super Rugby playoffs. What are your thoughts on the season?
There are a lot of positives we can take; things we can take forward to 2020. A lot of the boys got Super Rugby experience and an idea of what it was like playing against international players. They also found out what it’s like to travel a fair bit before a match. It was a debut season for several of the boys. That type of exposure will only benefit the team going into the next Super Rugby campaign because by then they will be used to the high level of performance required every week against teams with world-class players.
The Lions are going through a rebuilding phase and you are one of the senior players. How have you adapted to that role?
I was well-prepared and was eased into the role by the coaches and the other senior members in the team. I had a good chat with everyone and was told they wanted me to take on more responsibility because this was a team with a lot of new faces and younger voices. I accepted the new role because I love this union and I want this team to keep growing and to be consistent. Even though we didn’t make the quarter-finals this year, we are still up there with the best teams in terms of player depth and quality. I enjoy helping the younger players getting used to the structures and systems within the team and to what we’re going to face every week. That said, you can’t always lead through words, you have to lead and inspire through action, and I hope I’m doing that.
How have you managed your form and workload this year?
I don’t care much for my individual performances; I just want the team to do well. During the week, there are certain aspects of my game that I need to work on, based on how I played in the previous game. Once I feel those have improved, I see it as personal growth that will aid the team. I like training, whether it is with the team or in my off time, because I value my conditioning, fitness, mobility and flexibility. I have my own doctor, physiotherapist, massage therapist, psychologist, personal trainer and yoga instructor – people who look after me and help me improve beyond everything else I do in an official environment. Apart from my family, those support staff are the ones who keep me going, because they want what’s best for me and they know what that is. I’m obsessed with my fitness levels, so having a good work ethic where that’s concerned has never been a problem for me. Discipline and hard work are the two things you must have as an athlete.
You had a few difficult weeks towards the end of the season. How did you handle that?
Look, with 10 years’ experience of dealing with the media I really respect them. But I don’t get involved with the media too much. What I do on and off the field is for my team and my family. No one sees Elton the workaholic, the guy who is always trying to better himself. They just see what they want. And that is why I don’t read what they write about me. I don’t really care what they write and that has helped me whenever I go through a rough time.
You are one of those players who divide public opinion. What’s your take on that?
We have over 50 million people in South Africa. Some of them like me, some don’t and I can’t control that. For me it’s all about using my energy on the right things at the right places to get me in the zone. I don’t spend any energy worrying about the things fans say about me. I’m not selfish or self-centred, but I know myself and I won’t be influenced by outside noise. I deal with the negativity by blocking it out.
What is your response to the people who believe you are out of your depth in Test rugby?
I just laugh it off. I’m my own person and have my own way of doing things. If I had to listen to people who are sitting on the outside and pointing fingers, I’d never be able to play Super Rugby or Test rugby and I’d be just like them. People criticise an individual, but as players we don’t see ourselves as individuals. And when a player does see himself as an individual in a team set-up, he puts more pressure on himself and that is when people lose their way. I’ve been in the Lions’ system since I was 17 and I’ve been playing for the Springboks for seven years. Not a lot of people can say that. But I can honestly say I learned a great deal about myself when I went to play in Japan in 2014. Adjusting to a new environment without having someone familiar next to me to help was the moment I started to appreciate the importance of my Lions and Springbok teammates. What they think matters, but the public’s opinion of me and my abilities doesn’t.
What is your take on the new SA Rugby contracting system and how it will impact the players?
It’s a system that was obviously well thought through by all the stakeholders at SA Rugby and the unions, as well as some players. With the implementation of this system, they’ll be able to keep a lot of older and more established guys in the country. Some of the younger players will look abroad, but my understanding is that the best ones will be offered contracts to stay, and that will be good for the Super Rugby franchises and the Boks. I know Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx, Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit have all agreed to new deals, so from a Springbok point of view we can already see the impact this system has on players’ decision-making with regard to their careers. I believe it can work, if everyone just puts their union and the country first. Coach Rassie Erasmus is very smart and he is a great, innovative coach. So why would you want to move away from that?
Speaking of Erasmus, what is your relationship with him like?
He is a special coach and someone I love working with. He is a great mentor to all of us. He was a wonderful player and as a coach he is held in high regard all over the world. His achievements speak for themselves. When we started working with him last year, we improved as players and as a team because he has a different philosophy to his predecessors, which we all bought into.
Would you consider yourself one of the ‘bad boys’ of South African rugby?
No. I’ve heard that before but it’s not true. People see the tattoos and my love of exclusive sports cars, which are all over my social media accounts, and form an opinion based on that. But that is not who I am. I’m a father to three boys and I have to set an example. I’m a family man.
How do you shield your family from the publicity and criticism?
Luckily I’ve got a partner who understands the dynamics and fickleness of the public towards sports people in South Africa. With my difficult travel schedule, she is the one who mostly protects the boys and makes sure none of that negativity reaches them or impacts and affects our lives. She knows I want to be the best and that we have to make sacrifices as a family for me
to achieve that.
There were reports that your contract negotiations with the Lions stalled after a breach of team protocol. Can you shed some light on that?
I don’t know why I did it, I can’t really explain. But yes, I was dropped for making decisions individually in a Super Rugby game against the Sharks. I’m generally very disciplined and hard-working, so I can’t explain why it happened. But it was handled internally and hopefully that’s the end of it.
*This Q&A first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine