Johannesburg - When Rassie Erasmus was asked after the last Test against England about the performance of Elton Jantjies, the Springbok coach made it clear the Lions pivot had some work to do if he wanted to retain his place in the national pecking order.
He also said that like Sharks No 10 Robert du Preez, who delivered a rather calamitous cameo as a replacement late in the lost Test against Wales in Washington, he had a chance to regain his confidence in Super Rugby, according to the SuperSport website.
Judging from the names called up to join the training group that is preparing in Stellenbosch for the Rugby Championship, Jantjies has used his opportunity, Du Preez hasn’t.
The Sharks bowed out of Super Rugby with their quarter-final defeat to the Crusaders in Christchurch last weekend, which has given Erasmus the opportunity to add players from the Durban franchise to what has now become a 28-man group (Western Province players JD Schickerling and Cobus Wiese have been released to their union for the Currie Cup).
Du Preez was not part of the eight man Sharks contingent called up, and neither for that matter was Curwin Bosch, leaving incumbent first choice Handre Pollard and the Stormers’ Damian Willemse, one of three uncapped players, as the only flyhalves in the group.
It can be assumed that Erasmus will want three flyhalves in his Championship squad, so Jantjies should be added to the group once the Lions have either won or been eliminated from Super Rugby.
Although Erasmus made it clear he wanted to fast-track Willemse in the wake of yet another error-strewn Jantjies performance at international level in the loss at Newlands, there shouldn’t really have been much doubt that Erasmus would continue the investment in Jantjies.
There was some speculation that Erasmus would exclude him completely from his plans, but he has now built up experience that you just don’t throw away.
While Willemse is a prodigious talent and prospect, he is still raw and untried at international level. Erasmus has always said that flyhalf is a position where you need several players backing each other up, and he cites the New Zealand example of 2011, when the All Blacks had to draw on the fourth or fifth choice, Stephen Donald, in the World Cup final after injuries to the likes of Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade.
That is why you shouldn’t bet too much on France based former Sharks flyhalf Pat Lambie, who has played more than 50 tests and has been part of two Bok World Cup challenges, from coming back into the mix in the World Cup year.
For now though Jantjies is still at least third in the pecking order, and thus part of the plans, and he is making the most of the chance to show Erasmus what he can do at Super Rugby level. The high pressure knock-out stage of Super Rugby did not see Jantjies revert to the nervousness we sometimes see from him in big games.
On the contrary, he was the commentators’ choice as man of the match (most pundits would admittedly have voted for Malcolm Marx) after an assured performance that featured several dazzling moments of brilliance, such as the cross kick that set up the first try for Ruan Combrinck.
You don’t get a level of rugby much more pressured than a Super Rugby semi-final or final, particularly when that final might well be in Christchurch against Crusaders.
This is an opportunity then for Jantjies to build further on his confidence. While the Lions and Jantjies would obviously prefer to host the final, which they will do if they beat the Waratahs and the Hurricanes shock the Crusaders in their respective playoff fixtures this coming Saturday, it might even help Jantjies if it goes the other way - what better place to prove your BMT than in New Zealand in a final against the form team?
Du Preez meanwhile hasn’t taken the bit between the teeth in a Sharks team that ended the Super Rugby season playing as inconsistently as they did when they started it.
The Sharks pivot has turned in some great performances for the Sharks during the course of the season, but his influence appears to have been on the wane since the June break.
Indeed, he was perceived as the Sharks weak link on the day they lost to his former team, the Stormers, at Newlands in the penultimate league match.
It may seem unfair but there may nonetheless be some merit in the perception that was voiced by someone after that game that he was perhaps a better flyhalf when he helped WP win the Currie last year than he is now.
It might just come down to confidence and right now Du Preez does have time on his side. Right now though Jantjies has a lifeline and he can use it.
The Boks open their Rugby Championship campaign by hosting the Pumas at Kings Park on August 18.
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