When Springbok coach Allister Coetzee picks his squad for his first Test there’s little doubt who he will pick to start at fly-half.
Since the start of the Super Rugby campaign, Lions fly-half Elton Jantjies has had the inside lane to be the Boks’ starting pivot against Ireland at Newlands on June 11.
This of course is after the Boks’ first-choice number 10 at last year’s Rugby World Cup, Handré Pollard, suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Pollard’s back-up, Pat Lambie, was also out with a shoulder injury and is on the road to recovery, but he will have to play out of his skin over the next month if he wants to be picked ahead of Jantjies.
But despite being the favourite to be named as the Springboks’ preferred pivot against Ireland, since the start of the season, Jantjies first had to go out and deliver the goods consistently in Super Rugby to force the incoming Bok coach’s hand to select him at Test level.
And Jantjies’ head coach at the Lions, Johan Ackermann, deserves plenty of credit for the form of his fly-half over the past two seasons.
Unlike previous years, where Jantjies and Marnitz Boshoff alternated in the Lions’ number 10 jersey, Ackermann has, since the latter part of the 2015 tournament, backed Jantjies as his first-choice pivot in Super Rugby.
And that has played a big role in the two-Test Springbok’s improved performances for the Lions. Ackermann was facing a dilemma at the start of this season as both Jantjies and Boshoff had legitimate claims to be his preferred fly-half.
Jantjies had guided the Johannesburg-based outfit to their best-ever finish in Super Rugby in 2015 but then headed to Japan where he played for the NTT Shining Arcs in the Top League.
This meant Boshoff was pulling the strings in the Lions’ backline as they went on an unbeaten run to win the Currie Cup last year. But whereas Boshoff is a better goalkicker than Jantjies, the latter is a far better playmaker, who brings out the best in his outside backs on attack and also links well with his forwards, especially his back row.
Jantjies is a confidence player, who is at his best when his coach backs him, and that’s just what Ackermann did at the start of the season when the Lions kicked off their campaign with back-to-back victories on the road against the Sunwolves and Chiefs.
By leaving Boshoff out of his touring squad, Ackermann was telling Jantjies indirectly that he was the side’s general and the coach reaped the rewards with those two results.
It hasn’t been all plain sailing though. Results haven’t always gone their way and there are still questions over his defence, which needs to be addressed before he returns to the Test arena.
Coetzee is capable of fixing that though as he has worked with Jantjies before but hopefully he won’t stifle the pivot’s style of play like he did when he coached him at the Stormers in 2013.
What Bok supporters will find delightfully reassuring is that, unlike at the start of the season, suddenly there’s plenty of depth at fly-half in their country.
Apart from Jantjies, Lambie and Pollard there are now at least four young fly-halves who have the ability to wear the Bok jersey one day.
In the injured Robert du Preez and Kurt Coleman, as well as incumbent Jean-Luc du Plessis, the Stormers have three talented fly-halves who have all delivered superb performances at various stages this season.
Du Preez showed promising glimpses during the Stormers’ season-opener against the Bulls and finished with a 23-point haul in his side’s 33-9 triumph and Coleman played arguably his best-ever game for the men from the Cape in their 31-11 win over the Brumbies in Round Four.
Du Plessis started the season as the most inexperienced of the trio but he – with Du Preez and Coleman both crocked – has grabbed his chance. Yes, like any youngster, he makes mistakes, but he has a wonderful skill-set which keeps defences guessing.
The Sharks also seemed to have unearthed a quality player, in Garth April, who showed with polished performances against the Highlanders and Chiefs that he belongs at Super Rugby level and is destined for greater heights.
It will be interesting to see how far each of them develops. South Africa’s cupboard of fly-halves though is far from bare.