The subplot to the Super Rugby semi-final in downtown Joburg features an intriguing duel between the premier flyhalves in South Africa and New Zealand.
Elton Jantjies and Beauden Barrett will battle for the right to advance to the final, but both will also share the secondary objective of answering questions about their ability to kick at goal, particularly in pressure matches.
Barrett’s shoddy goal-kicking contributed significantly to the British & Irish Lions leaving the Antipodes with an unexpected series-tie. He has missed 11 of 29 shots at goal this season which is the reason why Beauden may have to wait for younger brother Jordie to pull a few shots wide on Saturday before he gets another crack at the tee.
Unfortunately for the South African cause, the reigning World Rugby Player of the Year makes up for this deficiency with other formidable facets of his all-round game.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case with his Lions counterpart. Jantjies has converted 65 of 84 goal kicks this season, but when that success rate drops to 33%, as it did last week, every other aspect of his performance is then affected.
He is a man under pressure after a wayward display of goal-kicking made a gripping contest out of what was expected to be a regulation win against the Sharks in last week’s quarter-final classic.
As a result, much column space has been used by scribes to criticise him, while the social media reaction was hellish, to put it nicely.
Amidst this over-reaction to Jantjies’ performance, voices of reason have been heard regarding his worrying lack of consistency in pressure games and how it can be fixed.
These voices are united in the unwavering belief that he has more than proven himself at this level since his breakthrough season in 2010. His stint at the Stormers was very unlucky, with personal tragedy playing a role, but the resilience he showed to rise from the adversity to become an A-class player is testament to a special player.
As far as I am concerned, his finest hour was in last year’s clash between the Lions and the Stormers at Ellis Park – a 29-22 victory for the home side.
Like any match-winning performance from a flyhalf, his kicking – out of hand and at goal – his defensive effort and his orchestration of the Lions’ backline that day made him the standout candidate for the Bok No 10 jersey under incoming coach Allister Coeztee.
It was the best performance by a South African flyhalf I had seen in a while, and gave him the momentum to continue flourishing in an impressive Lions’ title charge, until he came unstuck against the Hurricanes in last year’s final.
Assessing his performances for the Boks is much harder because of the abject collective failure that was the 2016 season, as well as the work-in-progress that is the encouraging start to this year’s international campaign.
At their peak, what set apart Daniel Carter, Jonny Wilkinson, Stephen Larkham and Morne Steyn from every other flyhalf in the professional era is that they imposed their will on their opponents the majority of the time.
When on-song, Jantjies is hardly disparate from these legends, but the problem is that there are not enough of these commanding performances to choose from.
Remember, he was the leading points scorer among South Africans last year (190, third overall) and tops the charts in 2017 with 175 points. That is proven class.
Saturday is the perfect opportunity to shut up his critics and Barrett is the perfect foil to gauge what might happen when the Rugby Championship rolls round. Furthermore, the Canes inflicted two wounds on the Lions in 2016 that appear to have a legacy of their own considering the references they have received since the semi-final matchup was confirmed.
What better time to settle a score and lay down a marker than by thoroughly dominating the world’s best player in front of your fans in a hopefully hostile environment?
What has distinguished four Kiwi teams and the Lions from everyone else in recent seasons is the almost perfect execution of rugby basics, and these basics are all Elton Jantjies needs to revert to, particularly making the scoreboard tick over with the boot.
Playoff rugby is about making less mistakes than your opponents, while ruthlessly punishing theirs.
Elton, seize this moment and make us believe! Our rugby needs heroes more than ever before. Now is the time to step up.
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