Herschel Jantjies’ journey to world rugby stardom

The Springbok scrumhalf has had a long and gruelling trek from his Kylemore birthplace but through it all he has been supported by his parents and fellow residents of the small Cape town.

In the week leading up to Herschel Jantjies’ surprise Springboks debut against Australia at Ellis Park in June, his family did the most Kylemore thing anyone from Kylemore could do. They squeezed inside a Quantum, filled with friends and relatives from the small town near Stellenbosch, and packed their goodies for Johannesburg, braving the 16-hour drive north.

His father Sammy, 55, and mother Adeline, 48, along with the youngest of their two boys Sammy-Jo, decided to forego the first class flight ticket they would have rightly received for having a son making his Springbok debut. The warm community bond that knits the fabric of Kylemore was far too strong to let them veer off to the big city on their own. They had to take a neighbour or two and some close relatives. 

“The experience was awesome,” Sammy Jantjies says. “The atmosphere in the stadium was out of this world. It was our first time at Ellis Park and some of the people that were sitting next to us didn’t know we were Herschel’s parents.

“One guy said, ‘I’m here to watch the scrumhalf.’ Adeline wanted to know which one and he said the one from the Stormers. Later on she revealed that’s her son. And from then on … whenever something happened, they all looked in our direction. And when he scored his first Springbok try it was absolute chaos around us. There were hugs, high fives and low fives. I probably got 20 or more kisses from one old man. The next thing I knew, I saw my wife crying, so I gave her a hug. It was amazing.”

The long trip to Johannesburg was the perfect metaphor for the journey Herschel took to becoming a Springbok and a member of the Rugby World Cup squad that lost to the All Blacks in their opening pool match. From the time Sammy and Adeline noticed their child’s love for the game there wasn’t a place they weren’t willing to go, no hill they weren’t willing to climb to help him fulfil his dreams.

“It was never a toll to attend as many games to watch him play. And besides, it was nice to get out of Kylemore,” Sammy says, with a more than a slight chuckle. “It didn’t matter where Herschel was playing, we were there: Riversdale, Caledon, Bloemfontein, Sasolburg, Oudtshoorn, Vredenberg, wherever. We drove to all these places.”

Inspiring children from Kylemore 

Kylemore is not the place where Springboks are usually born or found, said Herschel before he boarded the plane to Japan.

“It’s not the best environment for young kids to grow up but there is some good that comes out of Kylemore,” he said. “If I can add some hope to a young girl or boy’s eyes, my mission would be accomplished.”

Kylemore sits at the valley between two imposing mountain sides that lord over the small town like two front-row forwards. If the mountains are Beast Mtawarira and Trevor Nyakane hovering over a ruck, then Kylemore is Herschel, fighting for the ball amidst the giants and punching well above his weight.

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It’s a town so small that you can drive from one end to the other without getting out of gear three. Children loiter in the streets. A man-child can be seen riding a three-year-old’s bicycle. No one is in a hurry. The unemployment among the youth, however, is palpable. But a new R54 million primary school is being built right next to the old one, PC Petersen Primary School, where Herschel first shone.

“He was very good in his academic performance and was an outstanding learner in class. He was very well behaved as a boy as well,” says Johanna Hendricks, who taught Herschel in grade two. 

Herschel is now as much a beacon of hope as the brand new school building that stands tall next door.

“People in communities like Kylemore have difficulty finding role models and people to look up to,” says Devon Combrinck, one of the heads of department at PC Petersen. “Even though Herschel is still at the beginning of his career, for the kids in Kylemore to see someone from here achieve such a high achievement, it is an inspiration.”

Humility and sport in his genes

Jantjies’ parents are as unassuming and as welcoming as they come. Sammy likes to be articulate and enunciates his words when talking on the topic of his son’s career. Adeline’s super power is her smile, which she deploys on sight and disarms you with all of her charm. Herschel inherited all of these traits from his two doting parents.

“They are a very humble family and you can see that humility in Herschel,” says Abraham Lackay, long-serving former Kylemore Rugby Club chairman and friend of the family. But humility and boyish good looks weren’t the only things Herschel inherited from his parents: they passed on an innate fighting spirit and great sporting genes.

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When the 23-year-old was about 18 months old, he needed an operation to correct an internal birth defect on his kidney. He came out of hospital stronger and with a hunger to play with a rugby ball – a hunger that never left him.

Sammy, a military veteran, had let go of his football career by the time Herschel came into the picture. His defence force duties had taken him to the former South West Africa (Namibia), where he played for professional club Rundu Chiefs in the Namibia Premier League.

For those who had the pleasure of seeing Sammy play, such as Lackay, he was a delight on the football pitch and the resemblance between Herschel’s turn of pace and his dad’s is striking. And so, when Herschel showed he had taken all his father’s speed, merged them with the agility required for a small guy to survive among Goliaths on a rugby field, Sammy passed him onto the trusted hands of Christo Jefthas. 

Jantjies’ early mentor

Jefthas, 64, is slight of build but his presence can be felt all the way from the Cape. He noticed Herschel’s rugby skills as early as nine, while he was teaching physical education and coaching at PC Petersen. Jefthas knew a good rugby player when he saw one. He did, after all, once play as a flyhalf to former scrumhalves and former Springbok coaches Allister Coetzee and Peter de Villiers, in the segregated days for the SA Colleges team. 

He knew where, when and how a pivot liked to receive the ball during a match and systematically went about training Herschel to becoming one of the most clinical passers of a rugby ball in the world.

“Even at nine years old, I could see he had nice kicking and handling skills,” says Jefthas. “The only thing for me was just to polish it off. I had to help him improve his passing from the left hand side. I took him to the back of the school, where the principal and teachers couldn’t see, and I took him there to practice his skills. For a long time I told him not to give the ball to me from his right; only from his left. If he got it wrong, I would throw the ball hard back at him. He learnt pretty quickly.”

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Herschel’s talent quickly outgrew Kylemore and the anonymity of PC Petersen. So Jefthas made the call that changed his destiny for good.

“I just went to my secretary and asked her to phone Paul Roos High School and I asked to speak to their principal,” he remembers. “That same day, he said I must come over at 3pm. At 2.55pm, I stepped into the school with Herschel. 

“Herschel said to me, ‘Meneer, I don’t think they are going to accept me.’ The principal looked at him and thought he was too small. Before we left I said to him, ‘Sir, this is a piece of gold.’ And a few weeks into the high school year [grade eight] they accepted him.”

A chance with Chester Williams

What is usually a serene path to stardom, via Grant Khomo, Craven Week and provincial age-group teams, turned into a tough road for Herschel. It wasn’t anything new. Sammy, Adeline and Sammy-Jo, 20, were at every game as usual, cheering on from the sidelines, even on the days when the Western Province hierarchy didn’t know what they had in him.

“Sometimes you could see he was a bit down but he never saw any disappointment on our faces when he didn’t play or was not even in the team,” says Sammy. “It never mattered to us. He knew that we were behind him all the way.”

Then came the opportunity to come under 1995 World Cup-winning Springbok Chester Williams’ wing. Herschel was the star of that 2017 Varsity Shield-winning “UDubs” team, coached by the late great “Chessie”, who was assisted by Springbok scrumhalf Bolla Conradie.

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“In 2017 he went to UWC and I think only his first game [against Cape Peninsula University] was a bit of a disappointment, in that he was yellow-carded. Chester was disappointed because it was a close game and put him on the bench for the following match.

“But that was the last of it. Chester knew he could not keep Herschel out of the team. From then on he went on to win quite a few man-of-the-match appearances in the Varsity Shield, including the final. That’s when Herschel made the decision to focus on his rugby. Chester wanted him to continue with his studies but Bolla was very happy [that he chose rugby].

“Bolla came to me one evening and said to me, ‘He’s going to be a Springbok’. I said no man Bolla, that’s not why we’re here. If Bolla looks back now, he will say: ‘I told you’.”

And so, when the child from Kylemore became a Springbok, scoring two tries on debut – and almost getting a hat-trick – on the same hallowed ground where Williams became a national hero, Adeline wasn’t the only ones with tears in her eyes.

Jefthas, the hard-as-nails “Mr Miyagi”, admitted: “I just cried.”

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