He may look like a small man, but don’t underestimate him.
Look at him, it’s easy to mistake Herschel Jantjies for a substitute teacher-type player.
A mere slip of a man (1.64m and 75kg) in a game increasingly dominated by human dump trucks, underestimating the Stormers scrum half almost comes naturally, especially when one of the greatest memories of his burgeoning career is a bizarre cameo role in Bloemfontein.
In late 2017, while doing preseason training with the extended Stormers squad, Jantjies was asked if he wanted to play a role that, to all intents and purposes, was more extra than bit part.
“We’d had a training session against the Scarlets and their captain broke an ankle before their last Pro14 game on tour against the Cheetahs,” he said.
“They called in [former Wales, British and Irish Lions player] Mike Phillips, who was already retired, but they needed backup for him. So they asked me if I wanted a shot. I thought it would be a great experience.”
By the time Jantjies came on for the last quarter of the game, the Scarlets had already lost, but it’s a memory he still cherishes.
“Phillips was actually one of my heroes growing up, so it was a huge honour and a dream come true to play in the same team as him.”
Having only made his Super Rugby debut last year, Jantjies was again expected to play understudy to the 34-year-old Jano Vermaak. But the youngster clearly had other ideas once Vermaak got injured.
Herschel Jantjies has grabbed every opportunity that has come his way with both hands and is now on the verge of a Springbok breakthrough. Picture: Stephen Nell
“I’ve worked for this my entire career and I’ve worked so hard that, if the opportunity came, I was ready for it. I’ve always trained with the mind-set that, if an opportunity came, I’d be ready to make the jersey mine,” Jantjies said.
And he’s made the number nine Stormers jersey his own. His quick clearance of the rucks, sniping around the fringes, high-tempo play, TJ Perenara-esque support lines and quick passes made him look like he’d always played at this level.
“It’s definitely been a step up. The game is much quicker than the Currie Cup, but I’ve adapted and I’m enjoying the pace because it suits me.”
A less obvious but similarly strong aspect of his play is his defence, which has seen him make try-saving tackles and pulling off the odd double-tackle.
“Because I’m always the smallest guy on the field, I have to make myself known in that department. I don’t want people to start targeting me and running at me the whole time. When I have to tackle, I try to make a proper tackle – it’s part of rugby, you can’t be a rugby player if you can’t tackle,” he said.
When asked which of the games he played was his favourite, he replied: “All of them. I said to Jaco Coetzee the other day: ‘Even if there are 10 people at Newlands, I still get goosebumps when we get on the pitch.’ Growing up, Newlands was everything; it was the field you wanted to play on and a dream. To finally play there is amazing.”
Fact Box: Herschel Jantjies
- He is from a "plaas dorpie" named Kylemore in Stellenbosch.
- While obviously talented, he has never made an SA Schools or SA Under-20 team.
- Up until Grade 11, he was a free-running fullback until the other kids grew and he didn't. His first-team coach at Paul Roos school, Hein Kriek, told him if he wanted to progress with his rugby, he'd have to move to scrum half.
- Former Springbok utility back Dawie Snyman helped him in what he calls a difficult transition.
- Although there is a picture of him and Damian Willemse standing next to surfboards in Muizenberg, Cape Town, doing the rounds on social media, he does not surf and he doesn't "even swim".
The ease with which he has taken to Super Rugby has been noticed by Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus, who recently invited him to one of his alignment camps.
“I never imagined I’d be in the Bok alignment camps. It’s still not something that’s on my mind because we have five games to play and my real focus is with the Stormers now,” he said.
“I was told to carry on playing as I have and not let being called to camp get to my head, which is true because if my form were to dip, there’s no way I’d go to the World Cup or get a cap for the Rugby Championship.
“It would be a dream come true to be part of the Bok set-up. But what is important is the next five games for the Stormers, so I can’t be here and have my mind in Japan. If I play my best, I’m sure coach Rassie will make a decision.”
As long as they remember that Jantjies is nobody’s substitute.