Elton Jantjies must make a timely statement in this Rugby Championship campaign as Handré Pollard nears full fitness, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Ahead of the June Test series against France, I wrote that Jantjies needed to use the three-Test series against France to finally prove he is ready to settle at Test level. In many respects, he did just that with a sequence of composed and classy performances as the Boks cruised to a 3-0 series win.
However, then came a nightmare performance in the Lions’ quarter-final against the Sharks, and suddenly all the old doubts had appeared to have arisen as critics typically questioned whether he possessed the necessary big match temperament.
Jantjies mostly silenced those critics with a much-improved performance in the semi-final and final, but the Rugby Championship is set to provide the real litmus test. It’s here that Jantjies’ all-round game will be tested under pressure against the physical Argentinians, unpredictable Wallabies and peerless All Blacks.
As it stands, Janjties has a fair amount of responsibility to shoulder, with no clear-cut back-up at flyhalf at the start of this Rugby Championship campaign.
With Frans Steyn omitted from the squad, young Curwin Bosch has been drafted into the squad, but the 20-year-old’s on-field role is likely to be limited at a time when he is simply looking to absorb as much as he can in the Bok setup.
Notably, though, Pollard looked to be in really good shape as he got stuck into training during the Boks’ first training session of the week in Port Elizabeth on Monday.
After a lengthy injury absence, Pollard will not be considered for selection just yet, but his return to fitness should serve to keep Jantjies on his toes, with Allister Coetzee having admitted that they need to build competition and back-up in the flyhalf position.
While Pollard has endured a nightmare run of injuries since the 2015 World Cup – having not featured for the Boks since the third-place playoff – there can be no doubt that the 23-year-old still has plenty to offer Springbok rugby.
A fit, motivated Pollard, and a young, hungry Bosch will be breathing down the neck of Jantjies, but this Rugby Championship provides the Lions star with every opportunity to make the No 10 jersey his own.
After all, there was surely no one who came into the start of the international season with more of a point to prove. Last year, Jantjies started in as many as seven Tests, and yet in a Bok team seemingly caught between styles of play, no player looked more unsure of himself.
To Jantjies’ credit, though, he returned to the Lions and continued to work tirelessly at his game, while putting last year’s Test match disappointments behind him with a host of mature performances in the 2017 Super Rugby season.
The temperament and work ethic displayed by the 27-year-old reminded me of a conversation we had midway through last year’s Super Rugby season, with Jantjies explaining then that he continued to live by the enduring words of his late father, Thomas.
‘My dad always believed that hard work will pay off, and that if you want to achieve something you have to dedicate everything towards it,’ he said at the time. ‘So that’s why I aim to put in the extra hard yards wherever I can. For me, I never want to take a day off.’
It was a comment such as this that provided real insight into the character of the man, while it meant his return to form in 2017 came as no surprise
With Lions coach Johan Ackermann affording Jantjies the freedom to play his natural game, the mercurial flyhalf again impressed with certain nuances of his game such as the manner in which he attacks space, times his offloads and often kicks into space with deft chip kicks over the defence.
But the big question remained: Could he finally translate this form onto the Test stage? In the end, Jantjies delivered an emphatic answer in June as he served as the fulcrum around which much of the Springboks’ success revolved.
He may not have stolen the headlines, but for really the first time at Test level, Jantjies looked comfortable and confident, while he completed his primary responsibilities with efficiency, most notably slotting 19 out of 22 goal kicks for an 86% success rate.
And just as Jantjies silenced his critics in June, he must do just that, once and for all, in this Rugby Championship campaign.
Photo: Dirk Kotze/Gallo Images