Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The chances seem good that at least one might crack the Springbok nod in June … but increasingly, what price both?
Elton Jantjies and Faf de Klerk have been strikingly constructive, assertive presences for the Lions in the early weeks of Super Rugby, and their very combination in the key respective No 10 and 9 jerseys goes no small distance in explaining that happy fact.
There was little culpability on either man’s part in the 43-37 home reverse to the Crusaders on Friday; quite the opposite, the duo were often instrumental in the emerging, admirably skills-conscious Lions outfit going toe to toe with the seven-time champions for lengthy periods of a riveting fixture.
Risk brings reward, but it also inevitably brings strife at certain times, as evidenced in the first half of the breathless, high-quality match when De Klerk flung out a lofted pass on attack on the blindside and Johnny McNicholl intercepted and streaked away for an opportunistic touchdown.
It was so nearly an inspired bit of play bringing reward to the hosts; instead it saw seven points cruelly go the other way.
Importantly, the gremlin didn’t see De Klerk shrivel mentally in any shape or form; the 24-year-old from Nelspruit just got on with his sprightly business to undiminished personal standards.
Generally, responsibility for the Lions’ shortcomings on defence -- which meant their laudable four tries were sadly offset by six to the impressive, more streetwise opponents – could not be laid with any conviction at the door of either Jantjies or De Klerk: it is in midfield that they have greater post-mortems to do on that front.
By a country mile, the Lions’ flyhalf and scrumhalf currently look like the South African pair best resembling a New Zealand-type duo for the high-speed enterprise and chutzpah they bring to the party.
De Klerk is no “game manager” in the mould of the once-great, very recently retired Fourie du Preez … but then no present, domestically-based scrumhalf wholesomely is.
Rudy Paige of the Bulls, the one who perhaps best fits that mantle, hasn’t yet produced in early-season either the calibre or consistency of rugby he demonstrated during 2015, which saw him earn controversially limited maiden exposure for the Boks under Heyneke Meyer’s fading tenure at the World Cup.
Anything but one of those infuriating No 9 dawdlers at the base of rucks or set-pieces, the Lions player’s style revolves around the more mercurial and stealthy aspects of the scrumhalf’s makeup, with snappy service and devilish elusiveness to the fore; he usually tackles quite solidly and courageously, too, when confronted by a rampaging forward or barrelling Antipodean wing.
De Klerk’s synergy with Jantjies goes from strength to strength, the one so evidently bringing out best qualities in the other -- to such an extent that their wearing nine and ten when the Bok machine rumbles into action for the first time in 2016 against Ireland at Newlands on June 11 seems not only possible but genuinely appealing if the yet-to-be-confirmed coach is determined to forge a brave new path in formula terms.
On Saturday, De Klerk should get the opportunity to advance his claims further if he encounters Cobus Reinach, already 10-capped for South Africa and a debatable omission from RWC 2015, as his direct opponent for the Sharks in Durban.
Of course the “nine and ten” match-up in the top-of-group derby would have carried even more appeal had Pat Lambie, one of the incumbent Bok front-liners at flyhalf, been able to directly counter the in-form Jantjies, who seems hugely intent on wearing the green and gold for the first time since 2012.
But Lambie is still recovering from a pre-season AC joint injury and expected to filter back into Super Rugby some time during May: whether that will give him enough time to confirm fresh rights to the Bok No 10 jersey remains to be seen, and the left-footed Jantjies is doing everything possible to nose ahead for favour in his continued absence.
The diminutive competitor, 25, is so much more self-assured a rugby player than he was two or three season ago, a period which included a fish-out-of-water spell with the Stormers, hardly helped by the freak death after a bee sting of his father and invaluable confessed mentor, Thomas.
Jantjies recently wowed even New Zealand commentators with his attack-sparking attributes in that upset triumph over the otherwise formidable Chiefs in Hamilton, and continues to look as “complete” a pivot as he has ever been in his sixth year of first-class rugby.
Of course he may be just a little nervous that his renewed push for Bok duty is likely to coincide with the overdue confirmation in a week’s time that Allister Coetzee is the man tasked with pulling the national team’s tactical strings for the next four years – he was Stormers head coach during Jantjies’ indecisive, to put it quite tactfully, stint in the Western Cape.
But Coetzee is also a seasoned and shrewd enough coach to be aware that the Jantjies of 2016 is a very, very different animal from the inhibited, often unhappy character once under his charge at Newlands …
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