Elton Jantjies was the biggest individual winner in a South African Super Rugby weekend that was characterised by more cheers than jeers, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
The Lions, in upstaging the Chiefs in New Zealand, were the tournament’s history makers because it was the first time the Lions had won in Hamilton. Jantjies, at flyhalf, produced a masterclass and finally played with the authority and presence of a world-class playmaker.
Jantjies has always been a player loaded with potential, but expectation hasn’t always been realistic and his performances in the past five seasons have often betrayed the potential of a young man who had played Test rugby at age 21.
USA and former All Blacks and Lions coach John Mitchell described Jantjies as a player good enough to excel in the Test arena.
Jantjies, in his early 20s, was influential when Mitchell took the Lions from domestic chumps to champions.
The Lions again are SA’s domestic champions and Jantjies is at the forefront of the team’s imposing position on the South African rugby landscape.
Jantjies had previously produced one-off cameos, in which there had been hints of former All Blacks maverick Carlos Spencer, who ironically was the Lions backs coach when Mitchell invested in Jantjies.
Back then, Mitchell called for consistency in Jantjies’s contributions. He insisted that Jantjies’s natural talents were secondary to a mental evolution in which he showed greater tactical appreciation for the nuances of dictating play and influencing results.
Consistency could only come with starting regularly and, unfortunately, Jantjies’s biggest battle after the Mitchell era was to get other coaches unconditionally to endorse his talent.
Jantjies spent a season with the Stormers in the year the Kings replaced the Lions in Super Rugby. The then Stormers coaching staff did not instill confidence in Jantjies, who in turn played with uncertainty and insecurity.
Jantjies was asked to adapt his game to the perceived needs of the team. He was erratic with his goal-kicking in his Stormers’ debut and never got back the starting goal-kicking duties. For Jantjies to prosper, he must be doing all the kicking, be it off the tee or out of hand.
At the Stormers, his play regressed and, mentally, his game stalled. He had lost his father, who had been his mentor and inspiration. He had also lost his team identity, by way of the enforced move to Cape Town.
He played with fear in Cape Town and the consequence was that he feared playing. He was condemned for the early penalty kick misses and he was blamed for the Stormers’ non-performance. Jantjies, his strut then a limp and a stutter, tried to negate the criticism by reducing his mistakes.
The net result was that of a vulnerable young mind whose belief was a player couldn’t be blamed for anything if he wasn’t making mistakes – and the best way to limit mistakes was not to try anything.
Jantjies, at the back of his one season with Stormers, played a game of catch the ball and shovel out a pass. That was the extent of his attacking game.
Stormers’ supporters couldn’t wait to see the back of Jantjies and he couldn’t wait to get back to Johannesburg.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann immediately selected Jantjies to play for the Lions against the Kings in a Super Rugby relegation-promotion two-match series. Ackermann also started the rebuilding of a player who was on his way to being an international reject before his 23rd birthday.
All credit has to go to Ackermann’s management of Jantjies. Equally, the player must be applauded for his willingness to find greater mental resolve, challenge his own insecurities and fight for the right to be trusted as an international playmaker.
Jantjies had an ally in Ackermann, but he also had an ally in his family support and a Japanese out-of-season contract. The Japanese experience allowed him to find his love for the game and to play without fear of failure.
Jantjies has also been good for the Japanese game. And the Lions have since simply been good.
The Johannesburg-based franchise played with the heart of champions to win in Hamilton. It is a famous win for the Lions and the celebration must be allowed to run its course, which means brag all week about it.
Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images