Elton Jantjies' French trip finally allows Lions to address longstanding depth issue

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Will Tiaan Swanepoel become Elton Jantjies' successor? (Gallo Images)
Will Tiaan Swanepoel become Elton Jantjies' successor? (Gallo Images)
  • Elton Jantjies' temporary departure for France is not only good for him, but arguably even more important for the Lions.
  • The Springbok pivot's excellence over the past few years have led to the franchise not investing all their energy into grooming a viable, proven deputy.
  • But it's a situation that could change for the better now that Fred Zeilinga and Tiaan Swanepoel are part of the setup.

Back in late May 2016, Johan Ackermann experienced a luxury the Lions haven't truly had ever since.

Faced with going to Loftus without the hugely influential Elton Jantjies for a Super Rugby derby, the franchise's then head coach could call on Marnitz Boshoff.

A Springbok flyhalf replacing a Springbok flyhalf.

That proved to be Boshoff's only start of a campaign that saw the Lions reach a first Super Rugby final, but he stood in superbly, contributing 21 points in a 56-20 mauling of the Bulls.

It's unlikely that the Lions will be in a similar situation anytime soon though they have the opportunity to work towards that when their Rainbow Cup journey against the selfsame opponents on Saturday.

Jantjies was notably released last week to jet off to France as a medical joker for Pau in the Top14.

By all accounts it's a move perfectly suited to the Lions captain's current needs.

With no clarity yet on whether South Africa's teams will be allowed to travel abroad to face some of their PRO16 opponents, another bout of local derbies is not what Jantjies requires.

The gritty, attritional nature of the French domestic league will suit him perfectly, the exact environment to prepare him for the series against the British & Irish Lions.

Yet the real benefit of his temporary departure lies in the fact that the Lions are now forced to blood a classy back-up.

For too long Jantjies' class and astounding fitness record have given the team an "excuse" to underplay building depth in the No 10 jersey.

Admittedly, this is where the debate becomes a bit tricky.

Firstly, if your pivot's form is consistent and his body unfailingly strong, why wouldn't you start him in every game? 

In the end, it's about maximising your chance of winning matches.

And secondly, the Lions can't be accused of not exploring options.

Over time, Shaun Reynolds, Ashlon Davids, Jaco van der Walt, Jeanluc Cilliers and Gianni Lombard had all been granted tastes without, for various reasons, staking real claims.

Out of all those players, Reynolds was the player who was granted the most opportunities, operating as the Lions' first-choice flyhalf in three Currie Cup campaigns.

His example, perhaps, suggests that the Lions have never really been at fault with their depth in the No 10 jersey.

Instead, the argument can be made that the Currie Cup - until last season's strength-versus-strength format - simply wasn't on par with Super Rugby level, that Reynolds' consistency in the domestic league wasn't a high enough barometer to put pressure on Jantjies.

Nonetheless, the prospect of a gruelling and revealing first PRO16 campaign means the Lions need to find a proper deputy for Jantjies.

Turning 31 this year, he's not getting younger and is never far away from being speculated as a target for overseas clubs.


                                                        Fred Zeilinga (Gallo Images)

As a result, Fred Zeilinga's contract status and the emergence of Tiaan Swanepoel are fortuitous.

Zeilinga in particular is an experienced flyhalf who, without boasting Jantjies' pedigree, is far more proven than any of the Lions' previous backup flyhalves.

In many ways, his game mirrors that of Boshoff - the former Shark has a good kicking boot, distributes well and surprises at times with his attacking initiative.

Also, if his eagerness to land a contract is anything to go by, he has the type of personality that won't be offended when he's dropped with thanks when Jantjies returns to Ellis Park.

That's exactly what the Lions need now.      

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