Rugby Championship

Meet the man who uncovered 'piece of gold' Herschel Jantjies

2019-07-31 09:32
Christopher Jephtas (Lloyd Burnard)
Christopher Jephtas (Lloyd Burnard)

Cape Town - "Sir, now I am bringing you a piece of gold!"

Those words may well have made all the difference in the career and life of new Springbok sensation Herschel Jantjies

They were uttered by 64-year-old Christo Jephtas, who was Jantjies' primary school coach and teacher at P.C. Petersen in the modest community of Kylemore outside Stellenbosch, in 2010. 

The 13-year-old, rugby-mad Jantjies had just started at Kylemore High School and had already smashed a 50 for the U-14 A team on the cricket field.

Jephtas, though, understood that if the youngster he had believed in since the first time he saw him at the age of 9 was going to make it in rugby, he needed a change. 

While Jantjies had been accepted to Paarl Gimnasium, sending him there was not an option for his parents Sammy and Adeline. 

The Jantjies' have lived in their Kylemore home "forever". It is where Herschel grew up, and where he still lives today. 

The family got by just fine, but private school money is a different level of financial demand. Most parents would agree.  

So, after consulting with Sammy and Adeline, Christopher Jephtas set about knocking the door down to get young Herschel Jantjies into a school that could accommodate and develop his rugby potential. 

Jephtas is still rather vague on exactly how he managed to get the job done, but one chat with then-headmaster Jannie van der Westhuizen was it all took and Jantjies was enrolled into Paul Roos that week.

"I asked the secretary to phone the principal and I saw him at 15:00 that same day," Jephtas recalls. 

When he arrived at the school, all Jephtas was armed with was a team photograph of the Boland U-13 Craven Week that included Jantjies. 

Jephtas recalls fondly how the young Jantjies was worried that they had arrived underprepared. One team photo, Jantjies was concerned, was not enough evidence of his ability. 

"Sir, now I am bringing you a piece of gold!" 

Christopher Japhtas (Lloyd Burnard)

Christopher Jephtas was hugely responsible for the development of Springbok Herschel Jantjies (Photo: Lloyd Burnard)

Jephtas reckons he didn't have to say much more than that. The school was on board with giving Jantjies a crack. 

It is a decision they will be thankful for today, with Jantjies becoming Paul Roos' 54th Springbok against the Wallabies at Ellis Park earlier this month. 

Jephtas remembers Jantjies being chosen for the U-14 D team, and when he went to watch him play a game he was horrified. 

"He didn't play in his position," Jephtas recalls.

"I was furious and I just shouted on the side of the field: 'Who is the coach? He is a scrumhalf!'"

Jantjies was just nine-years-old when Jephtas, who taught at P.C. Petersen for 21 years, first realised he had a rare talent on his doorstep.  

"The first time I saw him he had a rugby ball in his hands while we practicing for athletics. He was passing the ball and kicking the ball," he remembers with a contagious smile.

"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 the world's experience. He knew what he wanted from life.

"The pupils liked him. They wanted him to play in their team."

Despite Jantjies being small in size throughout his school career, Jephtas always believed that he had the ingredients to make it to the top. 

In fact, a few weeks before Jantjies was handed a Bok debut against the Wallabies at Ellis Park, Jephtas messaged him with a hunch that he would be selected. 

"I hope so, Meneer," was Jantjies' response. 

What has unfolded since is something that not even Jephtas could have anticipated. 

He watched both the Australia and All Black matches from his home, and he acknowledges it was difficult to contain himself.

"It was an emotional experience. It doesn't happen to everybody," he says.

"There were many other players that I coached, but they didn't believe in themselves and then many times the parents didn't support them. That is very important."

Jantjies is sitting on top of the world; a world that is about to change in a big way. 

There were many South African rugby lovers who had never heard of him a year ago, but today it is impossible to have evaded the hype.

Jantjies has exploded onto the international stage with three tries in two games, and he is now almost a shoo-in for the 2019 World Cup squad. 

This much attention is a lot to be thrust onto a youngster this quickly, and Jephtas is mindful of that.

"I know that in his mind there is something cooking because it's a great feeling to be chosen as a Springbok and I know he wants to go to the World Cup, but he must just stay cool and calm and collected," he says.

"He's such a wonderful person and everybody likes him ... he just needs to keep doing what he's doing." 

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