JOHANNESBURG - Super Rugby has been going since 1996 - that’s a whopping 22 years. And only this past Saturday did the Lions crown their first centurion, none other than Elton Jantjies.
It is nearly unbelievable that no Lions player before the flyhalf was able to hit the 100 cap mark while wearing the red and white.
There have been some like Willem Alberts, Jano Vermaak, Victor Matfield and AJ Venter who’ve made it to the century mark, who at some stage turned out for the Lions or Cats, but they were all representing other teams when the magical 100 came up.
Jantjies’ achievement should be celebrated.
He made his debut for the Lions in 2011 and over the past eight years has been one of the standout players for his team. He stuck it out when times were tough and successes were rare, and he never moaned, even when his own form wasn’t where it should have been.
He soldiered on, he learnt from those who’d gone before, like Butch James, who joined the Lions briefly at one stage, and Carlos Spencer, his one-time coach when John Mitchell was in charge in Joburg.
He took in everything he could, from sharing a training field with the likes of Morne Steyn, Pat Lambie and others.
There were times when Jantjies’ place in the team was under threat, by the likes of Marnitz Boshoff and Jaco van der Walt ... but he did what he’s always done - work harder to become better, to stay in the team.
On Saturday at Ellis Park, the 27-year-old led his team onto the field with his two young kids in his arms. He looked to the heavens, no doubt having a quiet word with his dad, his mentor, who passed away a few years ago. It was a touching moment from a player who has copped plenty of criticism over the years - unfairly on most occasions - and not always been fully appreciated.
Jantjies has faced many tests and he’s always come out on top. He’s been the true professional, who’s only been interested in doing what is best for his team, and his performances over the years have been only consistently good. He’s had his ups and downs, something that hits all sports men and women equally, but, generally, he’s enjoyed a hugely successful and good career. So, a big congratulations to him!
Lions fans will hope Jantjies sticks around a bit longer - because he is still the best No 10 by a long shot - but, sadly, he too may eventually make his way up north, like so many men have done in recent times. When it will happen is not known, but it will happen, and you can be sure wherever he goes he’s going to be lauded and appreciated and he’s going to continue producing quality performances.
It brings me then to another man who once turned out for the Lions, but never got to the 100-cap mark in Super Rugby, but also deserves special mention today - Schalk Brits.
The 37-year-old hooker played 63 times in Super Rugby for the Cats and Stormers, but he turned out for Saracens in England for over 10 years and earned well over 100 caps. He became a star of the Premiership, changed the way pundits and viewers thought of hooker-play, and was regularly deemed the best No 2 in Europe.
Brits has now retired, but those who saw him play know he was one-of-a-kind, a special player. It’s a pity we didn’t see the best of him in South Africa or for the Springboks, but then he was never fully appreciated.
Well done, too, to Brits on an outstanding career.