Johannesburg – He’s been put on a pedestal and praised, called the next big thing. He’s also been criticised and vilified and had to hear he’s not up to it at Test level. But we tend to forget that Elton Jantjies is a seriously talented rugby player, a man who orchestrated the Lions’ first Currie Cup triumph in 12 years – and he’s only been playing at senior level for three seasons.
In that time he’s experienced plenty of highs that a career in professional sport can bring one, but he’s also gone through many, many lows. Jantjies, though, says his experiences in top flight rugby will make him a better player in the years to come and he’s far from done with his goal to become the No 1 flyhalf in South Africa.
“My goals haven’t changed … not since the first day I played rugby at a senior level. I want to play for the Springboks,” he said this week ahead of the Lions’ second Super Rugby promotion-relegation match against the Southern Kings at Ellis Park on Saturday. The Lions won the first leg of the tie in Port Elizabeth last weekend, 26-19, with Jantjies contributing 16 points with the boot.
It was a timely reminder to those who had written off the 23-year-old (he celebrated his birthday on Thursday) after his disappointing loan spell at the Stormers while the Lions were in the wilderness during Super Rugby.
Desperate to play at the highest level, Jantjies took up an offer from the Stormers, to play for them in the competition, but things could not have started more badly for the former Hoërskool Florida pupil. Weeks before the start of the competition, Jantjies’ inspirational father, Thomas – whom he shares a second name with – died unexpectedly after complications from a bee sting. It set the player back in a bad way, as his father was his mentor and kicking coach, the man he would turn to for advice and guidance.
Jantjies, it would appear, is still struggling to come to terms with the tragedy. “I’m not ready to talk about my dad,” is all he says about the matter.
The flyhalf struggled to impose himself in a Stormers team that also battled to make an impression in the Super Rugby competition. He just wasn’t the player everyone had come to know. “It was a good experience for me, getting to know other players and playing in a team set-up that was quite different to what I’d come to know at the Lions.
“It was tough at the beginning, but I got out of it (the struggles) later on and in the end I enjoyed my time in Cape Town. The second half of the season was definitely better.”
Jantjies’ biggest asset, though, his accurate goal-kicking, was taken away from him after a nervy start in the blue and white jersey of the Stormers – those duties were handed to Joe Pietersen – and he admits it affected his general play. “I like having the kicking responsibility, it’s an important part of my game and it’s important to me.”
Many, including Naas Botha, say a flyhalf has to be the man who takes the goal kicks as it’s the No 10 who needs to control the game, be in charge, and without that, a flyhalf simply becomes a link to the back division. “I’m a team player though and have a job to do … the team always comes first,” adds Jantjies about the kicking duties being taken away from him.
Two weeks ago Jantjies returned to Joburg where he made a name for himself at the Lions. Having debuted at senior level in 2010 and touring with the Boks in November of that year, he shot to prominence when he scored 24 points for the Lions in the Currie Cup final against the Sharks in 2011. He would, however, only make his Test debut last season, against Australia at Loftus Versfeld and to date he’s picked up two caps.
The last 12 months, however, haven’t been great for the flyhalf, missing out on the Bok team for the June Tests and falling behind Morné Steyn, Pat Lambie and even Demetri Catrakilis in the No10 queue. Then there’s still Johan Goosen – whom he replaced at Loftus last year to earn his first cap – on the comeback trail.
Jantjies, though, looked the player of old in the red and white of the Lions last weekend. “I grew up here and the Lions have been like a family to me. It’s where I learnt my rugby and I felt comfortable slotting back into the team. I may not have been part of the team for six months, but the management and players welcomed me back and they were very helpful in my fitting in again.
“Of course, the responsibility was on me to deliver the goods and get back into the mode. The Lions had built up good momentum from the matches they’d played and the results were good, so there was a lot of confidence going into the Kings game.”
The Lions face the men from the Eastern Cape again tomorrow for a place in next year’s Super Rugby competition and Jantjies says they’re looking for a repeat performance from last weekend. “It’s a big game, the future of the team is at stake, but there’s confidence we can do it. This is a new start for Lions rugby and if we get back into Super Rugby the team can do well.”
Whether Jantjies will be part of this new start and play for the Lions next year is still to be decided. His contract with the union comes to an end in December and he’s yet to decide what his next move will be. “My focus right now is with the Lions and this weekend’s game. My agent will deal with things next week,” is all he’s prepared to say.
One thing is certain though, Jantjies is determined to get back into the form which saw him become a Bok. “Conditioning-wise I’ve got my strengths and weaknesses … and that’s my biggest challenge, to work hard on my conditioning. But I think every aspect of my game can be improved. I want to stay injury-free and work hard and keep my dream alive … to play for the Boks.” – The Star