Jantjies gets second shot

Elton Jantjies has the chance to make the Springbok No 10 jersey his own, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Opportunity knocks for Elton Jantjies, the standout South African flyhalf in this year’s Super Rugby tournament. Barring injury, the Lions’ spearhead will start at No 10 for the Springboks against Ireland this June.

This time, the gifted flyhalf will have an extended run at the elite level. This time, Jantjies will play a driving role in a revised South African approach that favours attack as much as tactical kicking and defence.

Allister Coetzee has promised to take the Boks in a bold new attacking direction in 2016. The new coach recently highlighted the role of the flyhalf in a more balanced approach, and believes the quality of this player’s decision-making will be vital.

‘We’ve already seen our Super Rugby coaches encouraging their teams to play more ball-in-hand rugby during this year’s competition,’ said Coetzee. ‘Our biggest point of focus [at the Boks] will be the speed and movement of our attack. Of course, decision-making will be crucial in this regard. There will be an emphasis on the No 9s and 10s making the right tactical decisions.’

While Coetzee spoke about the South African teams and players in general terms, he may well have been referring to the Lions and their flyhalf. The Johannesburg-based franchise have played an exciting and effective brand of rugby in this year’s Super Rugby tournament. After 12 rounds, they were streets ahead of their South African counterparts as far as attacking stats were concerned.

What’s more, the intent to play the game at speed has not compromised their results. At the halfway point of the conference stage, the Lions boasted six wins from eight matches. That record included an undefeated run against South African opponents, and a rare win in New Zealand (against the Chiefs).

The Lions’ ability to execute an attacking game plan to thrilling effect has set them apart from the other South African teams. Much of their success in this regard has been down to the option-taking of their halfbacks. Faf de Klerk has played to his attacking strengths, while Jantjies has looked every bit the general in that pivot position.

As more than one coach has noted, there is  a new maturity about Jantjies that was perhaps lacking when he first burst on to the scene.

Rewind to 2011, when then coach Peter de Villiers announced a 51-man training squad for the World Cup. Jantjies, then 20, was invited to train with the Boks, but didn’t make the final squad.

A year later, he was selected in the match-day squad for the third Test against England. His parents flew down to Port Elizabeth to watch their son make his Test debut. Unfortunately, he spent all 80 minutes on the bench. Afterwards, coach Heyneke Meyer explained that the game situation was such that he needed his first-choice flyhalf and goal-kicker, Morné Steyn, on the field at the death. Despite Meyer’s decision, the game ended in a disappointing 14-14 draw.

For Jantjies, the frustration had only just begun. He was forced to watch as Meyer gave another young flyhalf in Johan Goosen opportunities in the 2012 Rugby Championship, first as a substitute and then as a starter.

Jantjies eventually made his debut in the match against Australia in Pretoria, coming off the bench in the 75th minute. His second appearance for the Boks was in the defeat to New Zealand at Soccer City. On that occasion, he replaced an injured Goosen towards the end of the first half, and thus enjoyed a good 46 minutes of game time.

Then the events of the next 12 months stalled his international career. The Kings gained promotion to the 2013 Super Rugby tournament at the expense of the Lions, who finished last in the South African conference in 2012. As a result, the Lions were forced to loan top players like Jantjies to other franchises.

Jantjies battled to settle at the Stormers. He was dealt a massive blow when his father passed away in sudden and tragic circumstances on the eve of the tournament. As the season progressed, it became clear his heart was not in the campaign.

He started for the Stormers on 11 occasions, but was evidently not the same player he was at the Lions. The Cape side lost five of those matches, and failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in four years.

Jantjies returned to the Lions in late-2013, but it took time to regain that trademark swagger. Marnitz Boshoff established himself as the Lions’ first-choice flyhalf in 2014, and his Super Rugby form was rewarded with a call-up to feature in the Test against Scotland in Port Elizabeth.

At this point, some may have given up on the dream to play Test rugby altogether. Jantjies, however, continued to fight for his chance. As it would happen, a season in the Japanese Top League with the NTT Shining Arcs allowed him to make the necessary mental shift.

He returned to South Africa a more rounded player. Ackermann noted the change in his flyhalf, and wasn’t afraid to admit that the time away from the South African game had done Jantjies a world of good.  

‘He’s in great condition. He’s taking ownership of his position, and really thrives as a leader within the side,’ Ackermann said after the Lions and Jantjies had made an impressive start to the 2015 Super Rugby tournament. ‘All in all, he’s in a great space, and the only challenge that remains is consistency.’

While the Lions failed to make the playoffs, they did break their franchise record for the most wins in a Super Rugby season. Jantjies’ own progress in this competition was ignored by the Bok selectors, who opted for Handré Pollard, Pat Lambie and Steyn as the flyhalf options for the 2015 World Cup.

In 2016, Jantjies’ form in Super Rugby has been impossible to ignore. By early May, the Lions were on course to win the Africa 2 conference and qualify for the playoffs for the first time. Jantjies has played a key role in the success of the Lions’ attack and, after 12 rounds, had scored the third-most points in the tournament.

Some might argue that his form alone warrants selection in the Bok starting side this June. What should make Springbok coach Coetzee’s decision easier is the fact that Pollard, who started at No 10 in the big matches at the 2015 World Cup, will not feature for the Bulls or the Boks in 2016 after sustaining a serious knee injury in the pre-season. Lambie, Pollard’s understudy at the World Cup, only recently returned from a shoulder ailment. The selection of Jantjies as a starter against Ireland should be a no-brainer.

Of course, many, including Jantjies himself, will be looking beyond the series against Ireland to the Rugby Championship, and possibly as far ahead as the 2017 season. Jantjies has a great opportunity to show why he should start the Boks’ biggest Tests.

Ireland won just two of their five Tests in the 2016 Six Nations. They will travel to South Africa at the end of a taxing northern hemisphere season. In their current guise, they won’t demand the very best of South Africa.

Coetzee will be determined to start his tenure at the Boks with three straight wins. The less-established players in the squad will be keen to make an impression. And yet this series could well serve as preparation for the Rugby Championship.

The Boks haven’t won this tournament since 2009. They finished the 2015 competition in last place. They will be under pressure to show an improvement against Argentina, Australia and New Zealand later this year.

Jantjies has made it clear he wants to start in the big Tests for South Africa. He has said as much in the media, and his performances for the Lions have served as a secondary statement.

The Lions have already claimed some big scalps in this year’s Super Rugby tournament.

On each of those occasions, Jantjies has been influential with his split-second decision-making and superb execution. When he has been put under pressure by the opposition defence, he has shown an ability to adapt.

This was evident in the derby against the Stormers in Johannesburg. The Cape side did well to cut down Jantjies’ attacking space in the early stages. The Lions flyhalf, however, still managed to produce the game-breaking play towards the end of the first half. His chip behind the advancing defensive line was regathered by a teammate, and the Lions scored from a subsequent phase. That moment highlighted the player’s attacking genius.

Jantjies has shown he is more than a physically talented player. He has the ability to adapt when he is under pressure, to identify the weak points in what may appear to others as an impenetrable defence.

That vision, plus a patent ability to execute, should serve the Boks well as they strive to improve their attack.

– This article first appeared in the June 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Jon Cardinelli