Young flyhalves taking flight
There have been times since the end of isolation when it was difficult to know where the next Springbok flyhalf was coming from.
There were times during the Springbok tour of Britain and Ireland last year when it was possible to wonder what all the fuss was about with Elton Jantjies. Ignored in the match-day squads for the four Test matches, Jantjies had to make do with an appearance in a much-denuded side, and in a losing cause, against the Barbarians in the final match of the tour.
Having been lauded as the fulcrum of an unlikely Lions resurgence in the Currie Cup, Jantjies was understandably overlooked on tour in favour of the man of the match in the Currie Cup final, Pat Lambie. The Sharks pivot came off the bench against Ireland to make his Test debut and then, as was the case at provincial level, worked his way up the pecking order in rapid fashion.
Then Lions coach John Mitchell signed not one but two former Springbok flyhalves during the close season. André Pretorius has moved back from Durban to join his old side and Butch James will move to Johannesburg from his current home in Bath in May. Where did the precocious 20-year-old Jantjies fit in now?
We need not have worried. Mitchell gave Jantjies his opportunity against the Bulls last weekend and he grasped it with both hands, even if his feet let him down. That is to say, Jantjies missed a few kicks at goal that may have turned a brave 24-20 defeat into a glorious victory, but history suggests that we prefer our heroes with flaws anyway.
Regardless of the result, in the second half at Ellis Park Jantjies was the best player on either side. His precision pass to release Waylon Murray en route to the tryline was a thing of beauty and his foursquare physicality in the eye of the blue storm was testament to a rock-solid temperament. The Bulls tried to bully him and he ignored them.
There have been times since the end of isolation when it was difficult to know where the next Springbok flyhalf was coming from. Coaches desperate for results were forced to pick strictly utilitarian players purely for their ability to kick goals. Think of Louis Koen, Braam van Straaten or Jannie de Beer and you think of the sound of leather on leather, not side steps and pop passes.
Now we have two 20-year-olds with outrageous ability who have been blooded at the highest level ahead of the World Cup. Remember that when, in the weeks ahead of the tournament, someone tries to tell you that Lambie and Jantjies shouldn’t play because their kicking isn’t good enough.
The only way is up
Each will have to step up a gear this weekend. The Sharks face the Blues in Durban, a side that will travel with far more ambition than the Cheetahs did last week. The Lions have to forsake home advantage to play the Stormers at Newlands and, after their second-half display against the Bulls, will expect to be doing more than simply making up the numbers.
Sharks coach John Plumtree admitted after the win against the Cheetahs that the only way was up. His is a side packed with quality and the late withdrawal of John Smit did nothing to dilute that fact. Yet, against a Cheetahs side that was blown out of the scrums by referee Craig Joubert, and kicked what ball they won back to their opponents, they failed to dominate.
Two tries from driving mauls is a poor return on the statistical hegemony achieved by the Sharks. The midfield axis of Charl McLeod, Lambie and Meyer Bosman needs time to mature and it’s hard to do that in the hurly-burly of Super Rugby.
Nevertheless two things count heavily in the Sharks’ favour this week. They found a way to win on an off day and this week’s opponents arrived from a far-flung time zone just four days before kick-off. The Blues were impressive against the Crusaders and they will surely leave these shores with several log points in the bag, but not this week.
It is hard not to feel sorry for the Cheetahs. Missing their inspirational captain Juan Smith last week, they will also be without his stand-in Adriaan Strauss this time around. This is not the way any side would wish to confront the Bulls and it looks like being a sorry weekend for the men from Bloemfontein.
As for the Stormers, their tight five that must stand up and be counted this week. The likelihood is that they can expect no more than 50% possession and we will learn much about their overall prospects from what they do with that.
There was enough on view in the Lions’ defeat to suggest that the beast is indeed stirring and if the psychological scars of failing to win at all in last year’s competition have not dug too deep, this could be the week’s big upset.