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Rugby | Springboks

Rassie Erasmus © Gallo Images

Rassie stumped by Elton quandary

Rassie Erasmus’ press conferences are always good value because of the Springbok coach’s willingness to answer a straight question with an honest answer, and that remained true at the Rugby Championship squad announcement where he left little doubt about where his biggest headache lies.

In a nutshell, it appears Elton Jantjies’ struggle to deliver consistency and reliability in the big games that provide proper tests of BMT has placed Erasmus between a rock and a hard place. In the sense that he wants to back Jantjies, he feels he needs to back Jantjies because of the current lack of alternative and the investment that has been made in building the Lions pivot’s international experience. But Jantjies is making it hard for him.

“I knew this question was coming and that it would be the toughest to answer. I am clear in my mind about most things,” said Erasmus in response to a question that focused on his confidence that Jantjies, after what was perceived as another misfire in the Super Rugby final, would start delivering in pressure games.

It was a fair question. It was also an obvious question to ask. Dealing with pressure and being calm in the face of adversity is surely the core ingredient of a would-be World Cup winning flyhalf. Erasmus was open about his concern around Jantjies’ inconsistency after the pivot had failed to take the opportunity offered to him when the coach experimented with his selections in the final test against England at Newlands.

It was clear then that Erasmus was losing faith in Jantjies, as surely were many other people who watched his error-ridden performance. He did have the excuse then of playing behind a pack that failed to deliver on the day, and Erasmus used it on his behalf. He also though made it clear that Damian Willemse, the precociously talented young Stormers and Junior Springbok flyhalf, would be fast-tracked during the Championship.

Erasmus believes the 20-year-old has the talent and, as significantly, the physical readiness at his age to do what Frans Steyn did at a similar age for Jake White at the 2007 World Cup. At the same time though he recognises that Willemse, for all his talent, has yet to be tried at international level, and it is impossible to say now whether he will adapt quickly to the challenges and pressures of being the team play director, which is effectively what a flyhalf is.

It is why Erasmus is planning to blood Willemse at international level as a fullback rather than at No 10.

“It is a fact that no World Cup has been won with a flyhalf who is less than 24 years of age,” said Erasmus.

“Your flyhalf is your quarterback (the playmaker in American Football), the go-too man, the man who makes it all happen, the man who is in control. Maybe there will be less pressure for Damian initially as a fullback. We are thinking of playing him there. Not because Willie (le Roux) is not the first choice, but because it is a way of easing Damian in.

“Pat Lambie started out as a fullback, both through the age-group levels and with the Boks, and so did Frans Steyn. They both later moved to flyhalf. Playing fullback teaches you how to manipulate the opposition defence, it gives you a view of the field that promotes an understanding of how to control the game by making the right decisions.”

Lambie could be the long term answer to Erasmus’ search for a back-up to first choice pivot Handre Pollard. Erasmus was excited about the possibility of reintroducing Lambie to international rugby when he returned from his coaching stint in Ireland, but that died because of the injury Lambie sustained playing for Racing 92 at the end of the European season.

“Things change quickly in world rugby because of injuries. Pat went down before we selected the squad for the June internationals and he will be out until February. Frans (who is also an option at 10, 12 and 15) struggled to come through after the French season and now he is in his pre-season.”

The upshot of all of the uncertainty about when Lambie and Steyn, who both boast more than 50 international caps and have been involved in two World Cup efforts, will be back in the selection mix, plus Willemse’s current status as untried at international level, is that Erasmus has to back Jantjies. For now at least.

The weeks the Boks worked together during the June international season was Erasmus’ first exposure to Jantjies. He believes the player’s professional attitude and willingness to learn and improve is on his side and may make it possible to get him to where he needs to be through coaching.

“I never knew Elton before the Boks. I am not here to defend people’s character, but I will say that Elton is one of the best guys to work with in terms of analysing, in terms of doing extras, in terms of working hard,” said the Bok coach.

“To take your team to the Super Rugby finals three years in a row means you must be doing something great. But then at the same time when three times in a row you don’t make it and don’t produce what is needed to take the trophy, then people will start questioning you.”

Erasmus tried to defend Jantjies’ performance in the final by drawing comparison with the All Black flyhalf Beauden Barrett, who was equally anonymous in the Hurricanes team that lost comprehensively to the Crusaders in the semifinal. But Erasmus will know that he is not comparing apples with apples, for Barrett played behind a well beaten pack. The final was one occasion that Jantjies never had that excuse. Instead it was his opposite number Richie Mo'unga, who excelled even though he had minimal ball to play with.

Erasmus will also know that while he can assimilate match situations in training to help Jantjies develop tactically, it is impossible for him to assimilate the big match pressure that appears to be the core of Jantjies’ problem. The only way Erasmus will know Jantjies has overcome the challenge is when he sees him play a big game again.

And a big game in the Bok jersey may not be far around the corner for Jantjies if Pollard is injured during the Rugby Championship. For Jantjies clearly remains the second choice.

“I can tell you that if Handre goes down now then Elton will play. So whatever Elton’s problem is, we must sort it out.”

One way to “sort it out”, according to Erasmus, could be to address Jantjies’ heavy work-load.

“Maybe I should talk to the player first, but one thing I need to do is speak to Elton about his work-load. He plays Super Rugby, then he goes to Japan, then he is back to Super Rugby, international rugby, and then back to Japan. He has played a lot of rugby without a minutes rest. That could be impacting on him. One thing I am sure about is that he has the talent.”

He does indeed, but so does Willemse, and it is possible that the youngster could impress his way into Erasmus’ reckoning to the extent that Jantjies is demoted to No 3 in the pecking order before long.

“We decided back in June that even though Damian had been part of our alignment camps it would be beneficial for him to go to the Junior World Cup and work his way through the levels,” said Erasmus.

“He is one of those special players who can play 10, 12 or 15 and he is very useful to have in the mix even if he doesn’t get to play flyhalf straight away. He is physically ready for it despite his age. He has shown that while playing for the Stormers in Super Rugby. He is one of the more physical flyhalves around. Pat (Lambie) and Frans (Steyn) can also do that job for you, but they are out at the moment. Maybe in the meantime Damian will do so well that we won’t need them.

“Maybe Damian will be like Frans when he first played for the Boks,” he added in reference to the comfortable way that Steyn adjusted to the demands of international rugby when Jake White blooded him as a 19-year-old on the 2006 end of year tour.

Should Willemse not develop as quickly as hoped, however, Erasmus has another creative option to get around the Jantjies conundrum that he might apply in the future - perhaps not immediately, but certainly during the November tour of the UK and France.

“Playing Elton at flyhalf and Handre alongside him at inside centre is something I have thought about and am considering,” confirmed Erasmus.

That could be a way of taking some of the decision-making pressure off Jantjies. Again though, until he has actually tried it, and the coach admits he is running out of opportunities to experiment because he faces mostly tough games between now and the end of the year, Erasmus has a problem. He answered the Jantjies question the right way in Stellenbosch - it left no-one needing to guess at his concern. It is one of the few issues related to the Boks that he is not clear headed about.

What is clear is that the coach would like to back Jantjies. The flyhalf must just stop making it hard for him and make proper use of the next opportunity when it comes his way.


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