Elton Jantjies is producing world-class performances for the Lions, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
When news first broke that Elton Jantjies was to undergo surgery on a fractured wrist towards the end of March, the South African rugby fraternity quickly descended into a state of mild panic.
Just three months into 2016, and already Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie had been sidelined with serious injuries. Understandably then, fears that Jantjies would also be added to this list was cause for serious consternation.
Yet in a matter of hours his prognosis changed dramatically. After visiting a specialist in Pretoria, the flyhalf was mercifully informed that the injury was not as serious as first thought and surgery was deemed unnecessary.
From facing the prospect of up to three months out of action, Jantjies was suddenly given the all-clear to return to action just a fortnight after sustaining the injury in the Lions’ fourth-round Super Rugby match against the Cheetahs.
Jantjies’s lucky break – if you will excuse the unintended pun – was cause for rugby followers to celebrate. After the first few rounds of Super Rugby, and with Pollard and Lambie sidelined, Jantjies again emerged as South Africa’s form flyhalf.
With the 25-year-old maturely marshalling proceedings, the Lions made a memorable start to the season, winning three out of their first four matches – including a historic first victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton.
Playing with authority and maturity, his performance in that clash was nothing short of world class. A week later, he was at it again, contributing 17 points as the Lions clinched a convincing win over the Cheetahs.
Such performances again pointed to the personal development Jantjies has undergone in recent seasons and to the enticing prospect of the talented playmaker finally beginning to realise his full potential.
In 2010, Jantjies was named SA Rugby’s Young Player of the Year. In 2011, he made his Super Rugby debut at the age of 20 and later that year he earned the Man of the Match award as the Golden Lions emerged victorious in the Currie Cup final. In 2012, he made his Springbok debut off the bench against the Wallabies.
Understandably, high expectations have constantly followed the fledgling career of the young flyhalf, but Jantjies’s performances over the past few years have not always accurately reflected his immense ability.
‘Everything happened quite quickly at the start of my career,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘You do get a lot of attention from the outside at an early age and you have to know how to deal with that … So for me, finding consistency in my performances and realising early on what I wanted to achieve in my career were two important steps.
‘I also needed to keep that belief in myself, to realise there were going to be some rough times, ups and downs, and some bad games. But it was all about cutting down on those poor performances and to keep striving for consistency, while continuing to enjoy what I was doing.’
In 2013, Jantjies found himself facing immense challenges on and off the field. Having made the move to the Stormers after the Lions had been relegated from Super Rugby, he suffered the loss of his beloved father Thomas, who died after complications from a bee sting.
‘I can’t describe what I went through that year, losing my father and making a big move to the Stormers,’ says Jantjies. ‘To be honest, it was a time when I just wanted to get home, go to sleep, wake up, train, and sleep again. It was tough, but I do think I’m mentally stronger because of what I went through.’
And when it came to on-field matters, Jantjies never quite looked at home in the Stormers environment. Required to adapt to a defence and kicking orientated style of play, he was forced to curb his natural instincts and his performances subsequently served as a reflection of a player who looked to be a shadow of his former self.
Jantjies, though, reflects on that time as a period of personal and professional growth.
‘It was a learning curve. Some people seem to think it was a bad move or that it didn’t work out well, but I don’t see it like that. It was a different game plan I had to adapt to, but I learned a lot from a defensive and kicking point of view. Now I can look back and say I think it helped me to become a better player, and made me mentally stronger.’
However, Jantjies admits he couldn’t wait to return to the Lions set-up after his stint with the Stormers, and over the past two seasons he has once again begun to thrive in a more conducive environment.
‘Lions rugby is in my blood; the way we play suits me and it’s something I really enjoy. There’s a special culture that’s been built at the Lions over the past few years. We have a lot of respect for coach Ackies [Johan Ackermann], and every person in our squad goes out to play for him and the other coaches. The whole team enjoys the freedom we’re afforded to play with, and if we keep on working for each other, I feel that we can achieve something special this year.’
Jantjies says his role in the team has also evolved over time.
‘I’ve tried to take some extra responsibility when it comes to decision-making and being a leader. I’m still learning and want to improve as a player, which is what drives me, but I also want to be able to help the younger players where I can. It’s not about me as an individual any more, it’s all about the team.’
Such an outlook speaks volumes about the manner in which Jantjies has matured as a player and a person over the past few years. It’s also been reflected in his on-field performances which have put him firmly in line to make a return to the Springbok fold.
‘A real ambition this year is to earn inclusion in the Springbok team and then hopefully cement my spot,’ Jantjies says, without being pushed on the matter. ‘But in order to do that, I know I need to be consistently on top of my game and have the mentality to perform week in and week out. It’s a long, tough Super Rugby season that will present a mental and physical test, but my ability to cope with that is also what will determine if I receive the honour to play for the Boks again.’
And in pursuit of this ambition, Jantjies says he will continue to live by the enduring words of his late father.
‘My dad always believed that hard work will pay off and that if you want to achieve something you have to dedicate everything towards it. So that’s why I aim to put in the extra hard yards wherever I can. I never want to take a day off.’
– This article first appeared in the May 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine