Herschel Jantjies started 2019 as an unknown entity but ended the year as a World Cup winner, writes JOHN GOLIATH.
Just over a year ago Herschel Jantjies wasn’t in the Springbok conversation for the World Cup. He was seen as a future star and another promising scrumhalf coming through the ranks. Embrose Papier and Ivan van Zyl were battling it out to be Faf de Klerk’s deputy in Japan.
Both had opportunities in 2018 to stake a claim, with Papier producing a few decent cameos off the Bok bench. Meanwhile, Jantjies was having a wonderful Currie Cup campaign with Western Province, only months after making his debut. Not long before that he was playing in the Varsity Shield for the University of the Western Cape.
In 2019, Jantjies made his debut for the Stormers and produced a couple of standout performances that quickly got people talking. His Bulls counterparts Papier and Van Zyl were fading, while Jantjies’ star continued to rise.
On 20 July Jantjies played his first game for the Springboks, just over a year after making his top-flight domestic debut. He delivered an absolute blinder, scoring two tries against the Wallabies and impressing with his quicksilver service and his determination in the contact situations.
A week later Jantjies came off the bench to score the try that led to the Boks earning a draw against the All Blacks in Wellington. It essentially booked his place on the Boks’ flight to Japan, which then earned him a nomination as the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year.
Although it’s just a summary of Jantjies’ whirlwind past 18 months, it’s testimony of his ability to step up and meet head on each challenge he is presented with.
Talent can only take you so far. You need character and belief to succeed. Whether it was in the Varsity Shield or in rugby’s showpiece event, Jantjies showed that heart and desire to come out on top. And, at 23 years old, it’s exciting to think his best is yet to come.
This pre-World Cup quote from Bok lock Eben Etzebeth, who played alongside Jantjies at the Stormers, probably best sums up the young player’s meteoric rise to stardom.
‘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 you would be in line for a World Cup place?” He said no.’
Jantjies’ character and ability to raise his game to a higher level is something the late Chester Williams identified when the two worked together at UWC.
Jantjies played a key role in UWC’s 2018 Varsity Shield triumph, which led to the team’s promotion to the Varsity Cup in 2019. Before he died, Williams got to witness his star scrumhalf make his debut in the green and gold.
‘He is a very mature person, even though he is just 23 years old,’ the former Bok wing and World Cup winner said just a few weeks before his untimely passing. ‘The boy has a massive heart and a will to succeed. That is something you can’t coach. That comes from the heart. The desire to be the best you can be.’
It seems Jantjies has been punching above his weight all his life. Christo Jephtas, a former teacher at PC Petersen Primary, a school in Jantjies’ home town of Kylemore, just outside Stellenbosch, told Sport24 he stood out from a young age.
‘The first time I saw him he had a rugby ball in his hands while we were training for athletics. He was passing and kicking the ball,’ Jephtas said. ‘He was stronger and quicker than the other kids in his group. He was very disciplined. At age 10 he was like somebody who had a world’s experience. He knew what he wanted from life.’
Former Stormers scrumhalf Bolla Conradie, who featured 18 times for the Boks in the early and mid-2000s, was renowned for his fearless nature, as well as the intensity with which he approached the game.
The two worked together at UWC, where Jantjies started to take his game to the next level. To have a former international scrumhalf as a mentor was undoubtedly a considerable boost for Jantjies, whose service and ability to knock forwards back in the tackle is Conradie-esque.
‘He was always the first guy on the field and showed a lot of leadership qualities. He put in the extra effort and hours to be where he is now,’ Conradie tells SA Rugby magazine.
‘He is the type of player who sums up the situation well and his passing and cleaning are always very good. He can tackle loose forwards. He is not scared to make contact and he plays with a lot of heart. That is what you want from your scrumhalf.’
But besides his can-do attitude, it’s Jantjies’ ability to do the basics well that has impressed Conradie since the two met a couple of years ago.
‘He doesn’t overcomplicate things,’ Conradie adds. ‘A lot of scrumhalves have a good pass or a good kicking game, but Herschel has got both – and vision. But it all starts with him doing his primary job really well, which is getting to the breakdown and executing well.’
Jantjies’ head is probably still spinning after an unforgettable year. But it’s clear from his quotes at the World Cup that he was always going to seize the moment. In this case it was not if the opportunity was going to arrive, but when.
‘Things escalated quite quickly for me,’ Jantjies said. ‘I’ve always been ready and up for a challenge. I’ve always prepared myself, so that when the challenge comes, I’m ready for it. Fortunately, I got to make my debut this year, and I grabbed it with both hands.
‘I work hard and I am continuing to work hard. Credit to Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach, they are great guys to have around me and it makes my job so much easier. I learn a lot from them.’
It’s smaller players such as Jantjies, loose forward Kwagga Smith and wing Cheslin Kolbe who are changing the way South Africans view a player’s competitiveness, and that you maybe don’t need to have calves the size of watermelons to ‘make it’ in rugby.
‘I try not to think about size because if I do, it’s just going to put me in a negative mindset and then I’m just going to hold back,’ Jantjies said.
‘I try to go in with everything. I play out of my heart, so my body shape or type will never matter to me. To the smaller guys, they must just enjoy the rugby and put everything into it. If you are going to be scared and think about injuries, eventually you are going to get injuries.
Or if you think about a guy running over you, he will eventually run over you.
‘It’s rugby, it’s physical. You can’t shy away from the physical stuff. You’ve just got to climb in there and embrace it.’
The future looks bright for Herschel Jantjies. He could play Test rugby for the next 10 to 12 years. He could even add to that World Cup gold medal he so proudly displayed around his neck during the Boks’ trophy tour.
‘He’s going to be a superstar,’ Conradie adds. ‘Scrumhalves don’t really come into their own in terms of decision-making until their late twenties. He is already mature and can only get better. That is the scary part.
‘We don’t have to worry about him getting a big head, because he knows he has to keep working hard to be successful. I’m just looking forward to seeing how he grows as a player and a person.’
Jantjies has indeed laid the platform for what could be a stellar career at. He is a breakthrough player, who has the ability and the character to become a truly great one.