Being a regular starter for his Japanese club has helped Elton Jantjies to regain his form and confidence, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
With two minutes to go in their must-win Top League match against the NEC Green Rockets, the NTT Communications Shining Arcs took the ball through several phases before it came back to Elton Jantjies, who was standing in the middle of the field, 45m out. The flyhalf made a split-second decision to kick a right-footed drop goal that sailed over the crossbar and soon after NTT celebrated a win that took them into the top-eight stage of the competition.
It was a special moment for Jantjies, whose mother Alma was in the stands, and one that gave his confidence a further boost.
Jantjies has had a tough time of it since earning two Springbok caps off the bench during the 2012 Rugby Championship. His attacking game, which had been lauded at the Lions, didn’t gel with the Stormers’ more conservative approach during an unsuccessful on-loan stint last year, and he missed the start of this year’s Super Rugby tournament due to a shoulder injury. That allowed Marnitz Boshoff to take ownership of the Lions No 10 jersey, and while Jantjies did start three matches after returning from injury, he got just 311 minutes game time out of a possible 960.
Jantjies had decided before Super Rugby to play club rugby in Japan later in the year, and it’s proved to be a good move for him considering that Boshoff, when fit, was an automatic selection for the Lions in the recent Currie Cup.
As you would expect, Jantjies has been the Shining Arcs’ first-choice flyhalf throughout the Top League season, with head coach Rob Penney and backline coach Hugh Reece-Edwards, the former Natal and Springbok fullback, giving him their full backing.
‘Coach Reece is the chilled one, while Coach Rob has the rugby brain, so it’s a lot like playing under Carlos Spencer and John Mitchell when they were at the Lions,’ says Jantjies.
‘When I arrived in Japan the first thing the coaches told me was not to put pressure on myself, because they know I always want to perform and have high standards for myself. They said I must just enjoy it and express myself on the field. They have also given me a lot of responsibility and I’ve become one of the leaders within the team, even though it’s my first season here.’
'When I arrived in Japan the first thing the coaches told me was not to put pressure on myself'
Jantjies relishes running the show for NTT and doesn’t have too much trouble communicating with his Japanese teammates.
‘They understand a bit of English and rugby terms, and we have calls for general and specific attacking plays, so everyone is on the same page. It can be difficult to communicate if I want to play off the cuff, but often they see what I am trying to do.’
While the standard of rugby in the Top League is well below that of Super Rugby, and closer to the Vodacom Cup than the Currie Cup, Jantjies says the pressure to perform in Japan is just as great.
‘I feel the same pressure playing for NTT as I do for the Lions, because you’re playing for a company and not just a team,’ he says. ‘The company expects a lot from their players, especially the foreigners they’ve invested in.
‘There are notable differences between the Top League and Currie Cup,’ he adds. ‘The rucks are quick in Japan, because the breakdown is not as physical. Japanese teams also like to make leg tackles so they focus on line speed in defence, whereas in South Africa it’s all about maintaining line integrity and alignment. Our coaches have changed our defensive structure this season, which is probably why we have reached the top eight.’
However, as Jantjies indirectly points out, it’s unfair to compare largely amateur Japanese clubs with fully-professional South African sides.
‘In Japan, the local players all have day jobs with the company that owns the rugby team,’ he says. ‘At NTT, I go to gym at 10am – an unusual time for me as I’m used to 5am sessions with the Lions – and then train with the team from 3pm, when the locals players get off work, until 6 or 7pm. It’s not like in South Africa where the team can focus on rugby all day.’
Jantjies has also had to adjust to the Japanese culture, which he admits took some time.
‘The language is the big issue, the food is very different and you have to get used to the different mode of travelling. We use bicycles and trains a lot, and aren’t allowed to drive cars to the company for safety and insurance reasons.
‘But I’ve really enjoyed it here,’ he adds. ‘I’ve got a nice two-bedroomed apartment – although the club uses one of the rooms – and stay in the best part of Tokyo, close to Disney World.’
Most importantly, Jantjies is enjoying his rugby and getting back to his best.
‘I’m very happy with my performances and I feel like I’m playing like I did for the Lions last year before getting injured. I want to maintain this form for the rest of the Japanese season, go back to the Lions, have a good Super Rugby season, and get back into the Springbok squad.’
– This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine