Rugby Championship

Elton: Bok coach may lose patience

2016-08-22 14:06
Elton Jantjies (Gallo)

Cape Town – Springbok flyhalf Elton Jantjies seems stuck a little painfully on a barbed-wire fence … trying to play the intended Springbok way but irresistibly drifting into his beloved Lions’ more risk-accepting modus operandi in Super Rugby.

It has made for relatively uncomfortable, mixed-bag watching in the Test season so far, with the consequence being flashes of solo genius and game-breaking from the baby-faced talent, mixed with some ropey decision-making, tactical inaccuracy and rank errors from the No 10.

Jantjies is currently, awkwardly betwixt and between … which explains why he is earning only moderate ratings, at very best, in the eyes of many astute Bok onlookers despite his enduringly obvious skill set.

Given that he operates in such a critical conduit position for any team’s strategic intentions, it is becoming increasingly urgent that he and the national coach begin singing more uniformly from the same song-sheet.

I certainly don’t believe that Jantjies is consciously trying to force “his way” on playing style at the expense of the coach’s … we may also never know precisely, anyway, what is whispered in his ears by Coetzee in terms of directional goals.

If there are occasions where he is given the specific liberty to play things as he sees them, then perhaps the left-footer has simply been doing that, albeit with some hot and cold results thus far.

But Coetzee has also historically appeared quite strongly drawn at first-class level toward pivots – think Peter Grant and Demetri Catrakilis for his Stormers teams of the past -- who lean more toward security and structural “obedience” than mercurial qualities, so in many respects Jantjies might be considered reasonably deviant to his philosophy.

Throw in the fact that new Bok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, for all his admirable, tenacious qualities against both Ireland during June and much more recently at Mbombela Stadium, is more renowned for his massive energy levels and stealth than truly commanding game management, and the Boks have a recipe in both berths more for unpredictability than any predetermined bossing requirements.

All that would be fine if, for instance, Coetzee was as determined as Lions coach Johan Ackermann clearly is to emulate fast and fluid New Zealand playing styles, but I don’t believe the national coach is quite ready -- rightly or wrongly – to throw all Bok “traditional strengths” out of the window.

He is probably keener to still build an innings, as they say in cricketing parlance, aided in no small measure by the previously successful template by the Springboks of establishing (or at least attempting to) a no-nonsense physical and field-position grip before resorting to more expansive aspects.

Why I am personally, almost inevitably partial to Jantjies is for the very reason that, in the Super Rugby landscape earlier this year, he often looked our closest to – and sometimes pretty comfortably the parallel of – several of the fleet-footed premier flyhalves from the Land of the Long White Cloud, like Beuden Barrett and Aaron Cruden.

That said, many of his most sparkling performances came at his hard and fast Emirates Airline Park home venue, and the jury is very much still out about his ability to put a more pragmatic stamp on things when the game-plan requires it or conditions are heavier and more greasy (as they were in the come-from-behind Lowveld victory over Argentina on Saturday).

The Boks ought yet to have to play many more Tests this year on lush, pretty sluggish surfaces and possibly even in rain and mud, bearing in mind the Christchurch clash with the All Blacks on September 17, the fact that the home game against them on October 8 will not be on the Highveld (it’s at Kings Park) and then a traditional tour of winter northern climes looming beyond.

It is probably also not inaccurate to submit that, despite now boasting six Test appearances (though a mere three have been starts so far, in fairness), the 26-year-old is yet to produce the sort of consistently confident or precise showings for South Africa that have marked his Lions duties one tier below.

I hope, and suspect, that Jantjies will remain in the starting mix for the fast follow-up match against the Pumas in Salta on Saturday – incidentally, the long-range forecast is for warm and dry conditions there.

For one thing, Coetzee would earn some strong wrath from the big pro-Jantjies lobby if he lost his conviction this soon in the sometimes fragile-of-temperament playmaker.

At the same time, the player himself needs to keep working on his accuracies, including off the important kicking tee -- he left a few points out there in the Nelspruit nail-biter.

There may be some significance in the fact that, despite the presence of big-booted utility back and current No 15 Johan Goosen in the squad, veteran general kicking maestro Morne Steyn has remained a squad member for the trek to South America.

Make no mistake, the Boks, after their nasty close shave at Mbombela, will be targeting mere victory in Argentina above any prettiness in performance, and that doesn’t automatically aid Jantjies’ natural inclinations.

Still, the good things he did last weekend were sometimes close to sublime – including that magical line-break from halfway out in the seventh minute which eventually led to the most eye-catching of the Springboks’ three tries on the day: it included a suitably swift presentation off the deck despite being “monstered” in the tackle by two Pumas defenders.

Broadly speaking, nevertheless, the “marriage” between Coetzee and his first-choice flyhalf hasn’t quite been one made in the intended heaven yet.

If Salta proves fickle and inconclusive once more for Jantjies, it could become strained to the point of divorce.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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01 October 2016
South Africa v Australia, Pretoria 17:05
02 October 2016
Argentina v New Zealand, Buenos Aires 00:10
08 October 2016
South Africa v New Zealand, Durban 17:05
Argentina v Australia, London 20:30
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