Champs could make or break Jantjies

2016-08-12 11:30
Elton Jantjies (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – He turned 26 at the start of August, so Elton Jantjies can be said to have inched just beyond the “promising youngster” category of rugby player.

His whole career may also be approaching a delicate, intriguing crossroads: it is quite possible that the imminent 2016 Rugby Championship will be the international tournament that determines his sustainability – or otherwise -- as Springbok flyhalf.

For all the abundant gifts evident in his play for the vast majority of the Super Rugby competition this year, in which he was instrumental in the Lions exceeding expectation as plucky runners-up, the left-footed pivot has yet to wholesomely prove he belongs at the highest tier, where he is taken out of his clearly beloved franchise comfort zone.

That situation is not all of his own doing, of course: he has hitherto not had the benefit – and I would argue with some passion that he deserves it –of a settled run in the green and gold No 10 jersey, considering that his five caps span a period between 2012 and this year and include only two starts during the recent Ireland series.

It is not enough evidence yet to make a decisive call on his international mettle, and he is certainly talented enough to justify being offered the promise of stability.

I rather hope such a vote of confidence will come his way from Allister Coetzee in the six-match Championship … even if it can’t even be described as set in stone that Jantjies will be first-choice at the outset against Argentina (home, in Nelspruit next Saturday, and then immediately away).

But it’s a tricky issue, granted, because the new national coach, who saw his charges collectively rather labour their way to a narrow 2-1 triumph over the Irish, isn’t able to start handing out indulgent guarantees left, right and centre to personnel at his disposal.

The flyhalf spot is in a state of relative flux – what with Handre Pollard still rehabbing from long-term injury and the Pat Lambie ongoing concussion concern – and that applies to several other positions as well.

The very fact that Coetzee has included two overseas-based pivots -- versatile Johan Goosen, two years Jantjies’ junior, and seasoned place-kicking banker Morne Steyn, who is six years older – perhaps serves as a reminder that Jantjies’ hold on the shirt is far from a cut and dried matter.

And that, in many ways, is where a problem arises.

Of course you always require suitable cover, but by plucking two flyhalves from their club stations abroad, it seems to suggest that Coetzee has determinedly got who he wants to keep some heat on Jantjies.

Yet the incumbent is clearly a pretty complex, sometimes emotionally sensitive fellow, and my own suggestion, at least for the first two – and probably most obviously winnable, with due respect to the Pumas – Championship fixtures would be that the head coach give Jantjies a ringing endorsement, a feeling of decent security for the next two or three weeks.

It’s too simple and blinkered for cynics to bluntly say “oh, toughen up” when they hear suggestions that the boyish-faced Lions No 10 needs to feel “loved” … some sportspeople are simply made that way, and how judiciously they are handled by coaches can be critical to getting the very best out of them between the white lines. 

In the absence of Pollard and Lambie, Jantjies has just looked the most natural and accomplished flyhalf by far on the South African Super Rugby scene in 2016, and produced extraordinary performances at times that have earned rave reports in market-leading New Zealand where creative pivots seem to drop from the trees.

It is amazing how some observers back home have effectively -- and naively -- tossed Jantjies around like a rag doll in their minds over the past two weeks, first hailing his monumental role in the semi-final downing of the Highlanders in Johannesburg and then brutally writing him off because he was well shy of his A-game in the final in a miserable Wellington.

They conveniently forget just how many links in the vital chain facilitating a flyhalf’s effectiveness snapped during the Lions’ broadly error-strewn showing in the Cake Tin.

On a day when new champions the Hurricanes’ much-vaunted speed off the line on defence came into play powerfully once more – and sometimes seemed on the very borders of off-side considerations – Faf de Klerk gave inconsistent service from scrumhalf, whilst captain and No 8 Warren Whiteley didn’t have his best ball-handling game at his own post at the back of the scrum, either.

All of these factors conspired to make life uncomfortable for Jantjies; the same might well have applied to any other pivot under similar pressure on the day, frankly.

Suddenly, in the eyes of some blinkered souls, he just doesn’t cut it when the going is at its toughest … the weakest link, goodbye!

Jantjies certainly has his faults, but he is also one of few genuine, potential game-breakers in a Bok squad not exactly heaving with them as they enter another Championship hardly favoured by most bookies to emerge all-conquering.

In certain respects he needs to be regarded as the “Paul Gascoigne” of Bok rugby: though Jantjies fortunately avoids most or all of the wilder aspects of Gazza’s personality at career height, he is probably not unlike the former England soccer talisman for thriving best when given shrewd, warm man-management.

I am not saying with special confidence that the next few weeks will be the making of Jantjies for South Africa. The reverse could, alas, occur.

But I also reckon he is worth every possible pebble in the path being cleared to try to set up that big breakthrough.

Over to you, Allister?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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