Shining son

SA Rugby magazine discovers that Elton Jantjies’ rugby career has been shaped by his father.

‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ All of Thomas Jantjies’ answers to my questions begin or end with ‘sir’. It’s not treatment I would expect to receive from Elton Jantjies’ father, who is a regimental sergeant major (RSM) in the South African Army, but it shows the disciplined and respectful way Elton was brought up by his parents.

By the latter stages of the Currie Cup, Lions coach John Mitchell didn’t want any of the media speaking to Elton due to his significant rise and the associated interest from the fourth estate, but his father provides the greatest insight. Not just as a supportive parent, but sergeant-major Jantjies also coached Elton as an U14 player at Klerksdorp High, where they won the Beeld Trophy.

As a member of the army, Thomas was often transferred to different locations around the country, which meant settling down was tough for Elton and his younger brother Altonio – who plays for the Bulls U19 side. But in both cases wherever the pair, who Thomas describes as ‘best friends’, went, they excelled at sport. Most of that comes down to the guidance and structured support they received at home.

Elton was born in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape, but by 13 he’d lived in Cape Town, Pretoria, Potchefstroom and Mooi River. He played provincial age-group rugby and cricket, and in 2004 when the family relocated to Cape Town again, his dad admits to being a little worried about how Elton would react.

‘The moving was tough on the family, but it was out of our hands. It was fine at primary school, but when we got back to Cape Town, I became concerned about moving Elton as he was getting older.

‘Being involved in the defence force helped with the disciplinary aspect of raising the boys, because parents have to teach that to a certain level. If you teach them discipline, their attitude changes. If you have a positive attitude, positive things happen.

‘That helped with all the disruptions, but I knew Elton had to settle at high school. We only stayed in Cape Town for two years, and it was all up and down. When we were leaving, everyone was talking about the future and whether Elton should stay.’

Elton finished his Grade 9 year at Paarl Gymnasium, where he played U15A rugby and 1st XI cricket, while he also represented the Boland U19 cricket team in the same year. With the family heading back to Pretoria, Thomas wanted Elton to stay near them.

He boarded at Hoërskool Florida on the West Rand, where he finished his schooling.

‘I thought of keeping Elton at Gym, but from my side, it wasn’t about the two provinces as I knew they had good structures. The parent in me came out and human nature took over, and I wanted to have my boys nearby and for them to grow up with me.’

Elton lists his father as his greatest mentor, along with Carlos Spencer, his hero. Elton and Altonio have always been close to their parents, and although in Elton’s case his father was also his coach, Thomas is not an over-domineering figure as has been the case with some other younger sportspeople.

Thomas is grateful for what the Kiwi pair of John Mitchell and Spencer have done for this year’s SA U20 flyhalf, who made his starting debut in the Currie Cup against the Blue Bulls, aged 19.

‘Elton’s developed a lot under those two,’ says Thomas. ‘I told the coaches and the union that I’ve signed Elton off to his coaches. I’ll always be his father, but John and Carlos are his father figures now. I’m impressed with them, and everyone from the doctor to the conditioning coaches. I liked what John told him. He said that if Elton has a problem at 3am or whenever, he must get hold of him because he’s always available, 24 hours a day. There aren’t many coaches who’d say that.

‘In the past few months I’ve seen Elton grow. He’s thinking like an adult. His body language is so different to how it was at junior level.’

Most of the hype – rightly or wrongly – has been around Jantjies’ SA U20 team-mate Pat Lambie, but under the guidance of Mitchell and Spencer, Jantjies has also delivered consistent performances throughout the Currie Cup.

Although Mitchell believes he’s good enough, he doesn’t think Jantjies should be rushed into the Springbok squad for the Grand Slam tour, simply because of injury and conditioning concerns. With Morné Steyn set to be rested, Butch James only expected back from shoulder injury in November and Peter Grant in Japan, Jantjies and Lambie were viewed as the best candidates.

Mitchell stated after the Bulls game in mid-September that it would be short-sighted to put Jantjies in without him having played Super Rugby, and he hasn’t changed his view.

‘Elton’s still young and isn’t as strong and conditioned as he could be,’ says Mitchell. ‘He’s made strides and has lost some body fat, but is still carrying a few niggles. He’ll benefit from a proper 15-week off-season and it’s more important he lasts the whole of 2011 and that people don’t just look at one tour. If he’s rested, he’ll prosper and thrive for us and South African rugby. He’ll be a real asset.

‘Mentally it won’t do him any damage if results don’t go the Boks’ way, but the sensible move would be to give him a good pre-season. That would help South African rugby for four years, not just four weeks. Coaches owe it to the individual to prosper and not to degenerate. With some young players, when their performances don’t go to plan initially, they tend to be thrown away. If Elton makes the squad, the Bok coaching staff must be transparent with their aims for him.’

Former All Blacks flyhalf and Jantjies’ backline coach at the Lions, Spencer, reiterates Mitchell’s concerns.

‘Elton really is one for the future. The only problem is he’s carrying a few injuries and we had to work hard on him during the week in the latter stages of the Currie Cup to get him on the field. He was carrying a bad foot injury, and that hindered his goal-kicking practice during the week. That’s the reason he dipped in his averages against the Bulls and Sharks late on. If he had been able to do his normal amount of kicking in the build-up, he would have had the confidence and wouldn’t have had any problems. That’s why he needs a good pre-season.’

Despite conditioning concerns, Mitchell, Spencer and Thomas Jantjies all believe Elton could cope with the international step up this November. Jantjies Snr says Elton’s proved he can deal with the tough circumstances of having to play out of his age-group throughout his junior career (when he was 16 he played for the Lions U19s, and when he was 17, for the province’s U21 side).

‘Elton was exposed to the Currie Cup as a young guy,’ says Thomas. ‘He got the chance to perform, and took it with both hands. I feel he’s ready – those same players he’s playing with and against will also tour with the Boks. Look at history, James O’Connor played Test rugby aged 18, and Frans Steyn played at 19. I’m not saying Elton should be the first-choice flyhalf, but he’s relaxed and comfortable in this competition. If the opportunity comes, he’ll take it. He’s ready for the outside world. When he was 16 playing against much older guys I was concerned, but he performed. The way he’s been playing and the way he’s been managed shows he’s ready. I’m not worried that the national coach will throw him in the deep end.’

However, if the set-up in the Bok squad is similar to the one in the Tri-Nations and last year’s European tour, he’s likely to receive little to no coaching. Throwing a young flyhalf into an unsettled and disorganised team wouldn’t be the ideal introduction to international rugby.

Whether Jantjies becomes a Bok now, or as Mitchell and Spencer hope, next year, the pair agree that he’s something special.

Says Spencer: ‘I first trained with him during the Super 14 and noticed his quick feet. Then I watched him play for SA U20, and was encouraged by the way he attacked the gain line and used his physical presence to run at the defence. At the moment he’s very quiet on the field, but it’s only his opening first-class season and that will improve with time. He will learn how to control a game and our game plan. [Lions centre] Doppies la Grange has also really helped him on the field.

‘We’re working on his communication, but he’s a naturally talented ball-player. There aren’t many of those around. We don’t have to work on any of his skills, he has all the talent. All we do is show him a few clips of where he went wrong.’

Although Thomas has played an important role in both of his sons’ rise to prominence, he will merely guide them along and not interfere excessively. The obvious comparison to make is between the Jantjies brothers and the Rose siblings, Earl and Jody, who – especially in Earl’s case – have had a silver pathway to the top of South African rugby, but haven’t made it. Their father, Enver, has been viewed as more of a nuisance than aid, but after a lengthy conversation with Thomas, it’s clear that isn’t the case here and that discipline won’t be a problem.

‘When Elton was younger I was really involved in his coaching, especially his kicking and his technique. He’d always say to me, “Come Dad, let’s go practise kicking or something else.” We’d discuss the way he played. Our relationship was such that we trained after hours and did fitness. But now I’m more of a supporter and parent. I trust the coaches on the ground.

‘I don’t want to comment on the Roses, I don’t know them. But what we did with our kids 18 and 19 years ago is what we do with them now. I sort out the discipline at home and if I see something I’m unhappy with, we discuss it. There’ll be no ill-discipline. They’ll have the same agents from 2008 to 2012, and they’ll supply guidance and motivation. If Elton loses direction, the Lions will sort it out, and if Altonio loses direction, the Bulls will sort it out.

‘I’ve always told them to read as much as possible and watch other people and learn lessons from them. Throw away their negatives and keep the positives. They’re also focused. If they mess around at home, they know what will happen. Maybe once a month Elton will ask if he can go out late the next weekend, and then I’ll pick him up myself.’

By Grant Ball

– This article first appeared in the November issue of SA Rugby magazine.

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