Pretoria - Springbok pivot Elton Jantjies enters the first Test against France with more than just the weight of the nation on his shoulders.
Jantjies knows he has an opportunity to seal his credentials as a test starter and give his international career a boost.
The Lions pivot, whose enterprising attack and pivotal kick-pass has been a hallmark of his success over the past two seasons, is the only flyhalf in the squad as coach Allister Coetzee gets set to name his team to face the French on Thursday.
While some positions require a manner of speculation, Jantjies is a certainty. And he has a lot to prove to his doubters.
Following an exceptional 2016 Super Rugby season he moved to an under-prepared, underdone Springbok side, which lurched through a tough season under tough circumstances. While it would be unfair to blame any individual, it would be a lot fairer to say that Jantjies struggled to make the same mark he did in Super Rugby.
Part of this, of course, was hardly his fault, as the gameplan the Lions employed is a confidence, front-footed affair, and Jantjies was forced to play deeper, behind pods while not taking the ball up as often as he did in Super Rugby.
But that has all changed. In 2017 Jantjies emerged as a better candidate – a more rounded, mature player whose kicking - his one weakness in 2016 – played a crucial part in keeping his Lions on the winning road when things went against them, especially on tour in Australia.
His provincial coach, Johan Ackermann, believes this is precisely why he is primed to succeed this year at test level – older and wiser, and keen to impress – Jantjies has more tools in his arsenal this time around.
“I know there was criticism about the way he played for the Boks last year and he did struggle. He was outstanding in Super Rugby for us,” Ackermann told Supersport.com
“The Boks didn’t play the best rugby against Ireland last year but they did win the test series and then a few things went wrong. Among them Elton was one of the guys who was perhaps a bit up and down, but I think you have to look at the group as a whole, and did they all replicate their Super Rugby form in the test arena.
“That year has been put behind us and the fact that Elton has had a second good year in Super Rugby, his character has been proven. That tells me everything is there, the ability is there.
“So let’s hope the whole group performs, the forwards who need to lay the basis, so that he also has the confidence. I think we can over-analyse but I think we need to put it aside. Especially because he played good rugby this year, and he became more mature in the process. Now is the time that everyone needs to support him and hopefully we will see that same confidence in the test team.”
The change in his kicking success rate hasn’t gone unnoticed, and Ackermann puts this down to the hard work that Jantjies puts in away from the limelight. Where last year he was struggling to keep his kicking stats over 70 percent, this year he has only missed one penalty kick and is kicking at over 82 per cent - the required rate for Super Rugby.
Considering a number of the 11 conversion misses out of 52 were from the sideline, Jantjies’ kicking has shown a significant improvement and will be crucial in the test arena where points are at a premium and margins are smaller.
Ackermann says the extra work – outside the training times – is what has made the difference.
“Neil de Bruin (kicking coach) and JP Ferreira have both worked a lot with Elton. You also need to give Elton a lot of credit as well. He puts a lot of work and time into his kicking,” Ackermann adds.
“Elton works hard on his line kicks and goal kicks and we’re thankful it has gone so well this year. There were a few crucial games in Super Rugby where we needed to grind through and his kicking made the difference for us. I’ve always thought he has the talent to be there. The important thing now for him is to get consistency and this year this is a part of his game which has been consistent.
“We hope he carries that consistency through to test rugby, but it is definitely not for a lack of training or commitment. He puts a lot of hours in and is always willing to learn. This year he has grown in that area and showed a lot of maturity. For us, him ticking that box was a positive thing.”
Springbok coach Allister Coetzee this week admitted he is walking a bit of a tightrope with no back-up for Jantjies, but added that Frans Steyn – more accustomed to centre but able to cover 10 and 15 – would be the back-up for the test.
“It is a concern but then you can fall back onto a guy like Frans Steyn, who is a seasoned player and just a mature rugby player,” Coetzee said.
“You can fall back onto him, and if you look at the things that a 10 can do, then he is strong. He can take it up, kick out of hand, he can clean it up if there is trouble, take it on him. He is a good distributor as well. When you have a guy like him who has played 12, you will understand the pressures of 10 much better than anyone else. He knows, he tells his 10 to give the ball to him if he is under pressure.
“He knows, he has a great understanding of how it should work at 10. I’m happy with Frans, he’s trained there as well.”
That said, Jantjies is now a senior player in a young Springbok side, and has been around long enough to assume a role that will have a lot of eyes on him. At test level this is key – and any chance the Boks have of replicating the success the Lions have found lies precisely in empowering Jantjies to do the work he does for his franchise.
There are positive signs already that there is a more structured approach, and a greater willingness to not simply adopt the Lions game plan, but to rather attempt to get the philosophy and team culture right as well.
At the Lions of course, Jantjies is a key man and Ackermann points especially to his work ethic as one that inspires those around him.
“His role for us as senior player is of cardinal importance to us. He has walked a long way with the Lions, the players have a lot of respect for him,” Ackermann adds.
“They listen when he talks – he is an intelligent player and he has the freedom naturally to give his views on how we need to play. He is a leadership figure among the backline players and the players he is close to. He is very valuable for us in the way he gives that leadership.
“What is also outstanding for Elton is his work ethic. He has a very high work ethic and that is infectious for the younger players and also challenges the other senior players in the group to up their work and do extra things. Elton would go and put a little bit extra in on a Wednesday, even if it is with his kicking or boxing for extra conditioning. He puts in a lot of time.”
There is of course the lighter side to Jantjies that his social media followers see. The smiles and laughs – and trademark “flap caps” – something that has earned him a bit of a reputation on tour.
“Those who follow him on social media will know he is very into his “flap caps” - sometimes on tour he even has a separate suitcase for them. One suitcase takes 10 flat caps so there are about 20 flat caps that travel around with him when we tour. He never walks with the same one. But that’s him, he is very calm and humble and always willing to participate,” Ackermann laughs.
“That is important, a player who plays at this level must be willing to listen, and that is something he does well, and accepts advice – but also puts his side across. He is now a father and it gives him a different perspective. It’s wonderful, unbelievable how he has grown as a player and person. He is always there to help others as well. We are privileged to work with players like this and to have them in our teams.”
Jantjies has matured well in the Lions environment, but his desire is to be remembered as a Bok as well. Test rugby has always been an unforgiving arena, where only the strongest survive.
There has been no doubt that Jantjies has all the attributes to cement his place in the Bok team.
Three weeks in June give him the ideal opportunity to remind the rugby public of his talent. It gives him another chance to showcase the play that made him the Boks' No 1 choice this weekend.
All he needs to do now is grab the chance.
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