Sometimes you get athletes who stand out not only for their athletic ability but also for the work they put in, for their dedication, for all the extras they do in the hours outside of a match.
Sometimes they stand out for the things that don’t just make them good athletes.
Jonny Wilkinson, one of the best to ever play the game of rugby, was one of them.
His dedication to training was captured in stories of him picking out targets in the crowd to hit as opposed to just splitting the uprights, tales of training sessions on Christmas day, and ending each session with six kicks. Miss one, and the whole process would start from scratch. Relentless perfectionism.
The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, was another.
The story goes that when Gretzky, a former Canadian ice hockey player widely regarded as the greatest ever, was young, he’d stay out on the ice whenever he wasn’t at school or asleep. He wasn’t the biggest guy, he wasn’t even that fast, but his unmatched dedication to the game equipped him with skills that had no equal - skills so unrivalled that he scored a ridiculous 378 goals in one season when he turned 10.
Jerry Rice’s obsession with training made him possibly the most dedicated American football player of his time. That devotion kept him going for 20 productive seasons, playing in more games than any other NFL wide receiver, and regarded as the greatest one in the league’s history.
Sometimes it’s that work ethic, sometimes it’s that dedication to improvement, sometimes it’s that level-headedness that sets an athlete apart. Combine that with talent, and you’re sure to have one to watch.
In 2019, few rugby players would have been tipped as ‘one to watch’ more than Springbok sensation Herschel Jantjies, and his recent displays with the Boks can perhaps only be beaten by the velocity of his rise.
This time last year, the Stormers scrumhalf wasn’t even the first-choice No 9 at his franchise, never mind being the unofficial second-in-line behind Faf de Klerk for the Springboks, and that’s not at all due to a shortage of options.
Speak to anybody who’s ever worked with Jantjies and they’re bound to mention that “special” something they’d noticed about him. Look at him go on the field and you’ll see it, too.
The way he went in the Boks’ Rugby Championship opener against the Wallabies, scoring two tries to complement his superb debut, was brilliant. The way he came on for De Klerk early in the second half to score the try that saved the game against the All Blacks was pure class.
With the Stormers this season, Jantjies enjoyed more game time, partly helped by the injury disruptions to the experienced Jano Vermaak.
While the Stormers’ 2019 season wouldn’t feature in a rugby fairytale, Jantjies produced a string of performances that acted as the prequel to his magical productions in a Bok jersey. As good as they were, those Super Rugby efforts never quite set us up for what was to come at Test level. It couldn’t.
It’s only been two games, but Jantjies’ short time with the Springboks already perfectly showcased his abilities as a player. After his performance against the Wallabies, SuperSport analyst Nick Mallett said: “He should just retire now ‘cause it can’t get any better for him”.
Having listened to Herschel Jantjies, the person, not only the player, I believe it can.
Following one of the Stormers’ Super Rugby games, Jantjies was up for pitch-side interviews following their training session. The composed manner in which he spoke about their last game, about his performance and his work-ons showed a mature player, wiser than just 23, a person, and a player, eager to grow.
There was a certain calmness and level-headedness to the way he went about discussing the Stormers’ match during the media huddle, and we’ve seen that on the field too.
We’ve seen his decision-making under pressure and his game-reading ability, we’ve seen him go from assessing his options to perfectly, and calmly, executing.
When I spoke to Jantjies’ club coach Chester Williams, it was also the ‘person’ that the World Cup winning Springbok spoke kindest of.
Sure, he discussed Jantjies’ wicked pass, his support play, his running lines, his understanding of the game and his vision, but he also highlighted Jantjies as very respectful, intelligent and a guy who knows what he wants, as someone who’s not scared of asking if he doesn’t understand something, someone who tirelessly analyses his own game and that of the opposition.
When I asked Williams about one of his stand out memories of Jantjies - the player who proved that you don’t have to go from Paul Roos to Maties (he chose the University of the Western Cape) to become a Springbok - he mentioned Jantjies’ first training session at UWC.
“In his first training session at UWC, he gave his first pass and all the players were like ‘who the hell is this?’ Nobody expected to see this little guy pass like that; they couldn’t believe how far and accurate he could pass.”
Fast forward to July, and it wouldn’t have only been that passing game of his that would make any rugby fan want to hit Google and research his rugby background.
It’s still early days, and while Jantjies has proven himself to be one special player, the key for him now will be to be consistent, to continue producing what he’s been able to until now.
Again, looking at the careers of talented sportsmen like Wilkinson, Gretzky and Rice, it’s the people they were, not just the athlete, that so greatly contributed to their success.
Personal attributes such as work ethic and unwavering dedication combined with talent will almost always trump talent alone.
Jantjies is the type of player that can be the axis around which a team rotates. He’s that kind of talent. But he also has the drive to put in the work, to consistently improve, to be better.
Does his hunger to be better match a Wilkinson level of self-perfection? I don’t know.
But one thing that can be confidently said is that Herschel Jantjies was born for the Test arena.
From here on it’s all about continuing what he’s done until now. And in order to do that, a Wilkinson or Gretzky or Rice kind of obsession perhaps isn’t even needed.
Jantjies knows what he wants, as Williams put it, and if he’s half as intelligent as he comes across, he’ll figure out the best way to make sure he becomes one of the greats without having to look to legends of the past. He’ll do it the Herschel Jantjies way.