Last month, Elton Jantjies was named Sanzaar’s South African Super Rugby Player of the Decade.
It felt like some belated form of recognition for the Lions‘ captain, who’s been criticised as much as he’s been praised since making his debut in the tournament back in 2011 under John Mitchell.
The 29-year-old playmaker has experienced it all – relegation, a disastrous loan spell at Newlands, a resurgence after a sabbatical in Japan, three consecutive finals, becoming the fourth highest point scorer of all time and legend status in Doornfontein.
Yet, in a strangely appropriate way, the regional governing body’s accolade illustrates how Jantjies is still underappreciated.
Sanzaar never made a secret of the fact that that their methodology was predominantly based on statistics.
Therein lies the problem.
“Elton’s impact goes beyond the field,” former Springbok flyhalf Andre Pretorius told Sport24.
“This is a man who’s consistently reinvented himself to adapt to different contexts, always strives to be better and fights back when he’s under pressure. I’m not sure if sheer numbers can actually paint a complete picture of how influential he’s been in South African rugby.”
Pretorius, who played 31 Tests in the green and gold and was a mercurial, underrated pivot too, recalls how Jantjies’ iron will to get up and dust himself off after stumbling over hurdles was evident from the outset.
“I had just returned for a final stint with the Lions in 2011. I’d seen how Elton made his mark in the previous year’s Currie Cup and was regarded as one of the key young players in John’s new dispensation,” he said.
“But the campaign seemed to wear him down a bit. You could clearly see in his performances that his confidence was a bit on the low side. So they sent him back to the Vodacom Cup squad (where he’d play in a quarter-final against the Blue Bulls). One would’ve thought it would be all a bit unfashionable for him.
“We played the fixture at Wits and I remember thinking to myself that Elton didn’t look like he was feeling sorry for himself one bit. He had prepared professionally during the week and played really well in that game. That’s where I realised this guy is going to make an impact.”
Setbacks would remain in close proximity, notably when he had to deal with the death of his father, Thomas, a mere week before having to open the 2013 Super Rugby season as the Stormers’ starting flyhalf.
That stint was arguably the defining factor in entrenching the perception – which took ages to be dispelled – that Jantjies wasn’t cut out to play in more traditional, structured game-plan.
Pretorius is chuffed such thoughts have now been shown to be folly.
“Elton realised pretty quickly that he needed to cultivate a style of play that would make him a more complete flyhalf, especially after he got back into the Springbok picture a few years ago.
“We all know how he’s been crucial to the Lions’ success. He’s been given the freedom to direct and dictate. But we’ve seen at Springbok level that he’s now mature, calm and consistent,” he said.
Indeed, despite only starting four Tests in 2019, Jantjies had one of his best international seasons, delivering understated but compelling performances in the Tests against the Wallabies and Argentina at Ellis Park and Loftus respectively before un-fussily marshalling the Boks’ backup backline at the World Cup.
But the peak, according to Pretorius, of Jantjies’ legacy emerged exactly a week ago – the sheer relief that the Lions had managed to stave off an “opt-out clause” offer from French club Agen.
“The symbolism of that is massive. If Elton had left, the Lions wouldn’t have just lost their general, they would’ve lost a leader. Leaders are far more difficult to replace.
“Since I’ve moved to Potchefstroom and have been involved at NWU-Pukke, we’ve had various former players who were contracted to the Lions and who came back and said how unbelievable Elton is as a mentor. He wants to help rookies become better.
“More importantly, he embodies the old saying that ‘the best way to learn is to teach’. It’s a role that gives him new purpose and even improves him still. That is what makes Elton great.”