Cape Town – The body language … it has said it all, really.
After several false starts stretching back to 2012, Elton Jantjies finally looks the Full Monty as an international flyhalf.
As if by sudden flick of a switch this month, he looks as if he wants it … and more importantly he looks as if he belongs.
Just one assured, expressive performance would have been a bonus, a sign of personal progress, in the Springbok series against France thus far.
Back-to-back ones, instead, only seem to confirm a stirring coming of age at the highest level.
Jantjies has been a confident, authoritative and multi-skilled figure in the successive Loftus and Kings Park triumphs, both achieved by margins beyond the expectations of more cynical Bok monitors, or at least those demoralised by the enduringly torpid events of 2016.
There is very little reason to believe that he is going to markedly unravel – a phenomenon, let’s face it, that has occurred before – in the dead-rubber third Test at his beloved Emirates Airline Park in Johannesburg on Saturday.
He will have lost his familiar Lions scrumhalf, Ross Cronje, to a concussion-related sit-out, but the new Jantjies doesn’t seem like the sort of character who will be overly perturbed by that drawback, and might dovetail just as well in his current upbeat state with either of Francois Hougaard or Rudy Paige in game three.
In short, he has taken ownership of his influential position, belatedly in much the manner he has done for several impressive seasons at Super Rugby level for the Lions.
For a long time, it almost seemed as though Jantjies was a hapless fish out of water in any other South African-related rugby jersey, whether it be a green and gold one or, briefly in his problematic 2013, the kit of the Stormers.
Suddenly his prior uncertainty and insecurity for the Springboks has vanished, a situation no doubt aided to a healthy extent by national coach Allister Coetzee’s increasing recognition of the Lions’ playing-style template and heavier staffing from those ranks in most critical berths.
It is extremely difficult not to surmise, either, that the ascension to the national captaincy of Warren Whiteley, also his franchise skipper and a routinely nearby presence to him at No 8, has been a positive development in terms of energising Jantjies’ own game for the Boks.
And why wouldn’t the big personality of new assistant coach Brendan Venter, with his trove of global wisdom and frank philosophies on rugby union, rub off well on him, into the harmonious bargain?
The 26-year-old Jantjies has seemingly been empowered -- or has encouragingly empowered himself, or both – to play so much more on instinct for South Africa, something he has seldom found difficult for the Lions, yet previously laboured for so long to replicate at the loftier tier.
He now looks like the kind of “captain of his position” that Test coaches tend to so strongly appreciate amidst their preferred XVs.
There is still the odd gremlin, like dropping a pretty routine high-ball receipt in the Loftus Test. But even in that specific instance, Jantjies showed a new toughness and resilience in Bok terms by shrugging it off (no moodiness, no slumping of shoulders) and quickly turning constructive and clear-cut in his intentions anew.
Especially pleasing has been his physical commitment, even if it should never be drummed into him – who’d want to run the risk of devaluing in any way those lovely, subtle hand skills? -- that this needs to somehow morph into one of his primary attributes.
It is nevertheless a pleasing fact that Jantjies is very gutsily taking the ball toward the advantage line, setting up others around him for potential line breaks or creation of overlaps even when he is not specifically engineering them himself, and also defending his channel with a renewed zeal against raiders both large and less fearsome.
Nor can the place-kicking aficionados complain in any way about his authority off the tee: Jantjies has booted over every one of seven conversion opportunities (one of the eight Bok tries in the series so far was of the penalty variety, no longer requiring conversion) and also been near-flawless with the penalty goals attempted within his known acceptable range.
Just observe how much more animatedly and forcefully, too, you are seeing Jantjies, the Test player, issue crisp instructions to his outside backs, from behind a covering hand: “This is the plan … this is what we’re doing next.”
All of this points to a player who has completed the circle, if you like, of proof that he cuts it in international rugby, and that protracted spells of mental and tactical brittleness appear banished for good.
I think it is slightly disingenuous, too, for any lingering doubters – though their numbers must be thinning – to suggest that this has “only been France” and that Jantjies has thrived primarily because of their limitations.
This French team (certainly the one deployed in Durban) has contained the nucleus of the playing staff who came within a whisker of upsetting eventual title-winners England in the 2017 Six Nations at Twickenham – the visitors bossed generous periods against Eddie Jones’s charges before being pipped 19-16.
Had France managed a London upset, they might well have gone on to sneak the overall spoils in the illustrious competition.
The Boks entered this series under massive pressure for a swift, meaningful renaissance, and have collectively demonstrated that, in the two matches that have already determined its fate.
A resurgent Jantjies has been a central pillar of that near-startling turnaround.
I still fancy that, once fully restored to fitness and sharpness, Handre Pollard will have the time at his disposal, and consummate ability, to healthily pressure the incumbent for the Springbok No 10 jersey.
He offers slightly different strengths and qualities, and that is no bad thing.
More importantly, with Jantjies inching toward an inviting prime of his career and Pollard some three seasons behind him in calendar terms, Bok flyhalf stocks appear in good hands for the assault on RWC 2019.
Right now, though, there’s a big-lettered “hands off” notice from Jantjies to any other comers for the jersey.
And how often could you say that of Elton Thomas Jantjies before?
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