A rare break from rugby in the off-season may allow Elton Jantjies to realise his potential in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Elton Jantjies is an enigma. One can never be sure whether the genius or the impostor will wear the No 10 jersey on any given Saturday. One can never be certain that a white-hot attacking display against a top-ranked side won’t be succeeded by a mistake-ridden performance the very next week.
While he remains one of the best flyhalves in the country and one of the most dangerous attacking players in the world, Jantjies is yet to make the Springbok No 10 jersey his own. His strengths and weaknesses have been debated at length in the media, with some coming to the conclusion that the problem is as much mental as it is physical.
Last year, Rassie Erasmus waded into the debate and offered up a theory of his own. The Bok coach said Jantjies’ long struggle for consistency may be linked to fatigue. The flyhalf was on the park for all 1,520 minutes of the Lions’ 2018 Vodacom Super Rugby campaign. A closer analysis revealed he had been playing non-stop – for the Lions in Super Rugby, the Boks over the course of the Test season and for the NTT Shining Arcs in the Japanese Top League – for the better part of five years.
‘I have no doubt about his talent and we must find a way for him to perform to the highest level,’ said Erasmus. ‘That’s our job as coaches: to help him do that.’
The decision was taken to manage the player carefully throughout the 2018 Test season. After representing the Barbarians in early-December, Jantjies linked up with the Lions for their pre-season training programme instead of heading to Japan.
He certainly made an impression in his final appearance of 2018, though. The Barbarians started to gather momentum after Jantjies was introduced late in the second stanza and Handré Pollard was moved to fullback. Jantjies had a hand in two tries and then held his nerve to slot the game-winning drop goal in the 79th minute.
That cameo was a timely reminder of his match-winning potential. Afterwards, Erasmus – who was asked to coach the Barbarians – suggested that the Boks should have used the drop-goal option when facing England at Twickenham a month earlier. Perhaps Jantjies did enough to convince Erasmus that he could be an asset at the 2019 World Cup.
‘Playing for the Barbarians will go down as a career highlight,’ Jantjies tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘Coming off the bench and kicking that drop goal and ensuring we won the game is something I will never forget.’
There were several other moments to savour, such as his performances in the Super Rugby quarter-final and semi-final, as well as the Boks’ big win against the All Blacks in Wellington. There were a few to lament too, though, such as his poor showing in the Super Rugby final and the third Test against England.
Jantjies doesn’t hesitate when he’s asked what he needs to do to ensure the 2019 season is the most memorable of his career.
‘I have to improve in every single department. I’ve got to be more consistent this year if I’m going to help the Lions win matches and push for a place in that World Cup squad.’
Jantjies already boasts a reputation as one of the hardest workers in the South African game. He’s often the last player to leave the training paddock and has taken it upon himself to seek further help with regard to his kicking.
Recently, he rediscovered his passion for boxing. He feels the extra time in the gym may give him an edge in the coming months.
‘I was training at a gym in Pretoria for about five years. Then I had a shoulder operation and had to take a break from boxing. It’s only recently that I’ve returned to training and I’m really enjoying it. It complements my conditioning and I think it’s going to help my rugby career in the long run.
‘I set myself high standards and I’m willing to put in the extra work. It’s the same with my kicking. I put in a lot of extra time with my kicking coach because I know what it’s going to take to realise my goals.’
Jantjies played 10 Tests for the Boks in 2018; seven of those from the bench. Erasmus made it clear Pollard was his first-choice flyhalf and that he was determined to manage Jantjies’ game time after the Lions man had been played into the ground during the Super Rugby season.
‘I love being on the field,’ Jantjies says. ‘I believe the more you play, the more chance there is to improve. On the other hand, I played non-stop for five seasons. I went from Super Rugby into a season in Japan without a rest.
‘Rassie made it clear that he had a plan for me in the lead-up to the World Cup. I needed to have a break over the international season. I didn’t play in Japan this year and to be honest, I was feeling a lot fresher – physically and mentally – heading into the new Super Rugby season. It’s going to be a big year and there is a lot I want to achieve.
‘As every player will tell you, you want to start every single game,’ Jantjies says when asked about his bench role at the Boks last season. ‘You know it’s not always possible, though. You also realise the bench role can be crucial too.
‘Rassie was honest with me at the start of the Test season. I knew which games I would be starting. That helped me prepare and focus on what I needed to do in each contest. It’s still a big responsibility coming off the bench to close out a game.’
One of the big positives to come out of the 2018 season was the emergence of Jantjies and Pollard as a 10-12 combination. When Jantjies was introduced in the second half and Pollard shifted to inside centre, the Boks appeared to have more attacking and kicking options.
‘We enjoy a good relationship,’ says Jantjies. ‘It feels natural when I play 10 and Handré plays 12. It feels like we’ve been a combination for ages. I think it’s good for the team to have two decision-makers like that in those positions. We both see the game a bit differently at 10, which is a good thing. We help each other in that regard. Handré also communicates well from the 12 position and we can identify where the space is to attack.’
Erasmus also opted to blood the 20-year-old Damian Willemse last year with the aim of grooming him for the 2019 World Cup. With Pat Lambie’s recent decision to retire from the game, Willemse could be asked to play flyhalf at the tournament if Pollard and Jantjies break down with injuries.
After his Test debut against Argentina in Durban, Willemse credited Pollard and Jantjies for mentoring him on certain aspects of the game. Jantjies says all youngsters should be encouraged to put the team first rather than focus on their own milestones.
‘When I was Damian’s age, I was only concerned about what I could contribute as an individual,’ he says. ‘I was looking to score the most points or make the biggest plays. I was a bit narrow-minded.
‘Rugby has evolved a great deal since then, though. You can’t rely solely on individuals to win you big games and it’s the best team collectives that often succeed. It’s something younger players need to realise when they make the step up to the top level. You have to get to know your forward teammates and those in the backline. You need to gain an understanding of how everything fits together and operates.
‘It took a while for me to understand that, but I see the value of that approach now. It’s something I try to implement in every game. I make sure the tight five know what the backline is looking to do from a set piece and where the space is on the field. That’s how I look at a game. It’s not what I can do to attack that space, but what the team can do.’
Jantjies reiterates that he is determined to become a more consistent performer in 2019. At the same time, he realises there will be times when he is put under pressure and forced to adapt.
‘It’s easy to go into your shell after you make a mistake,’ he says. ‘You can wait for the review on the Monday to see what went wrong and then wait for the game on the following Saturday to rectify it. I’m a firm believer that you don’t even have a day to rectify your mistake.
‘Anyone can make an error in a game. It’s up to the player and the players around him to make adjustments immediately and rectify the situation. That’s where the best teams shine. You need the guys around you to pick you up, to tell you there’s still time to rectify matters and win the game.’
WHITE HOT AND ICE COLD
How Jantjies’ form fluctuated in 2018
Lions vs Bulls, Pretoria
The Lions forwards outmuscled their Bulls counterparts and Jantjies took some excellent running and kicking options to keep his side on the front foot. The Lions emerged 49-35 winners.
Lions vs Blues, Johannesburg
The Lions were 18 points ahead of the Blues at one stage but they lost their way badly, losing 38-35. Jantjies made several costly mistakes at the death.
Lions vs Waratahs, Sydney
Jantjies looked every bit the general playing behind a rampant Lions pack. The visitors claimed their first Super Rugby win in Sydney.
Springboks vs England, Cape Town
Jantjies had a game to forget in his first start of the Test season. The flyhalf struggled to control the ball in the wet weather and was eventually subbed in the 58th minute.
Lions vs Jaguares (quarter-final), Johannesburg
Jantjies produced an attacking masterclass as the Lions romped to an impressive win over the Jaguares, and was named Man of the Match.
Lions vs Crusaders (final), Christchurch
‘This is Elton Jantjies at his worst,’ former All Blacks scrumhalf Justin Marshall said in commentary after yet another mistake by the Lions flyhalf. Jantjies’ poor decision-making, wayward tactical kicking and shocking defence proved costly as the visitors went down 37-18.
Springboks vs Wallabies, Brisbane
Jantjies was the standout on attack for the Boks in an otherwise disappointing 23-18 defeat to the Wallabies.
Barbarians vs Argentina, Twickenham
Jantjies came off the bench in the second half and altered the course of the match with his pinpoint kicking and distribution. His late drop goal handed the Barbarians an unlikely victory.
– This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of SA Rugby magazine.