The setting – the auditorium at the Future Africa Campus of the University of Pretoria – wasn’t exactly Ellis Park, so Elton Jantjies seemed a little self-conscious as he approached the front of the room to commence his speech.
Having played club rugby in Japan, the Asian country’s embassy asked the Lions and Springbok flyhalf to give a talk on playing there to drum up interest in the World Cup, which Japan is hosting from September this year. The embassy also asked retired former Bok scrumhalf Fourie du Preez to speak.
Jantjies was out of his usual comfort zone of running the show in front of 60 000 spectators who like to think they know him. Facing an intimate gathering of strangers that included the Japanese ambassador, he broke the ice with a self-deprecating start: “Like Fourie said before me, it’s my first lecture as well … but [don’t worry], at least I finished matric.”
Jantjies’ talk lasted all of six minutes, yet he revealed more about himself to this audience with a passing interest in him than he had in nine years to those who not only watch him play every week but also troll social media daily to see what new sports car he’s driving or, indeed, what atrocious new hairstyle he’s sporting.
Window into Jantjies’ soul
There was the admission that he moved to Japan to put the death of his father, Thomas, in 2013 behind him; the revelation that he picked up his legendary work ethic from watching ordinary Japanese people go about their business; and the acknowledgement that the only Tokyo Drift the infamous petrol head got involved in was one of those bicycles with a basket on the front, his mode of transport while there.
“When I think about Japan, it’s a place which changed my whole life and my whole career,” he reminisced. “At that moment, I’d lost my father and gone to the Stormers and things hadn’t worked out … I’d just been through a lot.
“There’s also a very hardworking culture there, I don’t see how they wake up at five o’clock in the morning, get home at eight o’clock, sleep four or five hours and get back on to the train again. That’s something I’ve taken and tried to implement in my career.”
This open and engaging Jantjies is at odds with the picture most of the rugby public has of him.
Perception has trumped reality and the usually distant Jantjies – a trait brought on by people saying he was windgat (a braggart) when he declared that he wanted to be a 100-cap Springbok, having barely played a game for the Lions – is seen as conceited rather than ambitious, and all flash and no substance because he likes his cars fast and his hairstyles zany.
That his performances for the Lions, which he has led to three Super Rugby finals, haven’t necessarily translated into similar efforts for the Boks has led many to conclude that he is overrated and isn’t of international rugby quality. And not winning any of those Super Rugby finals has been used as a case in point for mental frailties diagnosed by armchair psychologists all over the country.
Joining the 1 000 Super Rugby points club
Jantjies has always responded by maintaining from as long ago as 2017 that “I have no response to something like that because whoever said that has no view of my preparation. Everyone has an opinion, all I can do is focus on what I have to do.”
A great way to gain insight into how Jantjies’ detractors see him is to draw attention to the fact that he is an admirer of Cristiano Ronaldo. Both aren’t seen as the natural heir to the throne in their relative sporting codes; have no qualms telling all and sundry their ambitions; don’t shirk hard work and don’t mind wearing the subsequent success; “go again” after being knocked down; and their main currency is grudging respect.
Those parallels go a long way towards explaining why Jantjies becoming only the fifth player in Super Rugby history to reach 1 000 points, against the Jaguares a few weeks ago, didn’t generate the fanfare that greeted his predecessors.
The milestone proved that perhaps the 29-year-old is more substance than flash, and meant a lot to him in a way that in itself was revealing: “It means a lot for me in terms of the guys that have done it before … the [Dan] Carters, the [Morné] Steyns, the [Stirling] Mortlocks, Beauden [Barrett] has done it and he’s still playing. I’ve always wanted to leave some sort of legacy in the sport, and hopefully this is the legacy.”
Crazy work ethic
If his achievement is not seen as a legacy, whether because Jantjies is an acquired taste or because he isn’t a serial title winner, at the very least it is reward for a “crazy” work ethic that sees him train seven days a week.
“There are different ways to get fitter and to challenge yourself mentally,” he explained. “You can’t just keep doing the same thing and that’s why I have my own personal trainer. I don’t know if it’s good for me to train seven days a week or to train once a week, but I know I need to push myself as far as I can every day to be consistent in life and on the rugby field.
“This is not a two or three-year thing for me, it’s a 12, 15-year thing. If I can get my body used to training at that level, I can play every single game there is to play.”
While he’s generally played – and started – every game in his nine-year career at the Lions, Jantjies has had to share his position with Handre Pollard at Springbok level, a scenario that had two bulls in the same kraal written all over it.
Then Bok coach Rassie Erasmus started experimenting with playing both of them at the same time, moving Pollard to centre late in games last year. “From my perspective it was fun, I really enjoyed it. Even in training, we clicked from the moment they made that move.
“I see it from the point of view of setting our egos aside and using our strengths together. We both see things our own way, but it’s funny how it still worked. He’s a right-foot kicker, I’m a left-foot kicker. But as you saw against the All Blacks [in Wellington], it was so easy to make adjustments in the moment.”
Jantjies also took time to address the feeling that he has not enjoyed his time at the Boks by saying that if a player doesn’t enjoy playing at that level, then he shouldn’t be playing at all.
“It’s so challenging. But if you want to be one of the greats, the tough times are what you want to go through.”
Going into the Lions’ game against the Sharks on the evening of Friday 5 April, Jantjies is two points from overtaking Mortlock on the top points scorers’ list and moving up to fourth. But he was more distracted by how unpredictable the tournament has been this season.
“The Chiefs lost to the Sunwolves, drew with the Hurricanes and beat the Bulls, who beat us by far. The Stormers beat the Sharks and the Waratahs shocked the Crusaders. I don’t focus on other teams, but I think it’s the team that pitches up every week and doesn’t live in the past that’s going to win it.”
As someone whose past achievements have done little to gain him universal recognition, he should know.