Give Elton Jantjies his Super Rugby due
Super Rugby’s Sanzaar earlier this week named a South African Super Rugby XV of the decade. The only criterion was Opta statistics, which were weighted in terms of attacking play. Jantjies was considered the best in South Africa since 2011.
Jantjies, since his Super Rugby debut in 2011 and his Test debut in 2012, has been a divisive figure among South African rugby supporters. He polarises the rugby public in a very similar way Springbok Test centurion Percy Montgomery did throughout his professional career.
Montgomery’s greatest impact would come in the Test arena, where he kicked the Springboks to the 2007 World Cup title. He was also the first Springbok to play 100 Tests.
Jantjies’s impact at Super Rugby level has been consistent with what Montgomery did at Test level, but because Jantjies has never converted his imposing Super Rugby returns to the Test environment, there is a common view among many South African rugby supporters that Jantjies’s career is one of failure.
You won’t get many who would pick Jantjies ahead of 2019 World Cup winner Handre Pollard, whose Test form often has been better than his Super Rugby performances.
Jantjies’s style of play is similar to New Zealand’s Carlos Spencer, who was a flyhalf revered for what he did for the Blues in Super Rugby but ridiculed for what he consistently didn’t do for the All Blacks.
Spencer had his moments in the All Blacks No 10 jersey. I was at Ellis Park in 1997 when he kicked the biggest of pressure penalties to beat the Springboks, while regular first choice flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens was warming the sideline. Spencer also bamboozled the Springboks in the 2003 Rugby World Cup quarter-final. His Test highlights were few and it is his five missed penalties against the Boks in Wellington in 1998 that is more synonymous with Spencer, the Test player.
It doesn’t negate the brilliance of Spencer, the Super Rugby player.
Equally, what Jantjies has achieved for the Lions in Super Rugby should not be dismissed because of what he is perceived not to have achieved with the Boks.
Jantjies found a home at the Lions with coaches Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin. The latter, in particular, believed in Jantjies as a playmaker, a goal-kicker and a leader. De Bruin was relentless in his praise for Jantjies where others were rampant in their condemnation of the player.
In contrast Stormers and former Springbok coach Allister Coetzee couldn’t find a connection with Jantjies. Coetzee, in the season that the Lions did not play Super Rugby, drafted Jantjies to the Stormers, but never entrusted him with being the general.
Jantjies, whose goal-kicking strike rate as a professional is 76%, missed two early penalty kicks in his Stormers debut and was relieved of his goal-kicking responsibilities. Jantjies, who has scored 1134 points in 127 matches for the Lions, in 13 matches for the Stormers scored just 11 points from a possible 20. In the end of his one season at Newlands, he wasn’t even doing the line kicking.
It took him one match back at Ellis Park to flourish again. The Lions style of play suited Jantjies and Super Rugby’s more flamboyant attack environment catered for all the strengths in Jantjies’s rugby make-up.
Sanzaar’s Opta statistics detailed Jantjies’s Super Rugby return of 1145 points (the second most scored by any player in the last 10 years), his 59 try-assists (the third most), his 50 clean breaks (the most among South African flyhalves) and his 2902m in gain, be it from the boot or with ball in hand, as the summary of his South African Super Rugby No 10 of the decade selection.
“What about his missed tackles, his lack of defence and his vulnerability under pressure?” screamed his detractors on social media.
Jantjies does miss tackles, in Super Rugby and at Test level, and he has buckled in big pressure moments in Test rugby, but this was not an award relevant to Test rugby. This was and is about Super Rugby, which is so different to Test rugby.
To borrow from cricket, don’t dismiss the credentials of South Africa’s most successful T20 batsman because he didn’t have the technique to succeed as a Test batsman.
Jantjies’s flaws have been exposed too many times at Test level, but his strengths have always been emphasised through his play in Super Rugby.
Super Rugby works for Jantjies and the player has made it work for himself and the Lions.
Give him his due because over and above all the attacking statistics there isn’t a South African No 10 who has rocked as much as Jantjies has in the last 10 years.
A player doesn’t have to have done it exclusively in a Springbok jersey to be revered for his rugby playing ability. Jantjies is among that group of players, with others including Schalk Brits, Neil de Kock, Ruan Pienaar and Ricky Januarie.
Go to Saracens and ask any supporters and UK media about the quality of Brits and De Kock. Equally, Pienaar at Ulster or Januarie in France’s Top 14.
Brits played 216 matches for Saracens between 2009 and 2018 and won two European Championship titles and four Premiership titles. De Kock played 250 matches for Saracens after having played 101 Super Rugby and Currie Cup matches for the Stormers and Western Province respectively. Yet both combined for less than 30 Springbok Tests over a decade.
Januarie is one of the most inspiring South African rugby stories and not just for his individual magic in scoring the match-winning try to beat the All Blacks in Dunedin in 2008. That moment is part of Bok rugby folklore, but Januarie’s story is even more impressive.
He played 47 times for the Boks in the era of Pienaar and the incomparable Fourie du Preez and on his international retirement subsequently found greater fame and fortune in playing 162 matches for Lyon (79), La Rochelle (43) and Agen (40) in France’s Top 14. Januarie has been in France since 2011 and at 38 years old is still mixing it with the best. What a story. What a South African rugby legend.
Jantjies is just 29 years old and don’t bet against his next five years being everything as good as it has been for the last 10 years. Just don’t expect it to be at Test level, when his brilliance has always been as South Africa’s best Super Rugby No 1.
Independent on Saturday