For at least six seasons, South Africa has been on a mad search for the kind of scrum half to end New Zealand’s dominance of world rugby.
Coaches, scouts and selectors have scoured every corner of the country to find a sniper, a manoeuvring maverick, a cunning competitor and a feisty fox – an answer to the All Blacks’ Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara.
The Kiwi pair set a new standard in No 9 game play with an unrelenting, pacey running and passing game that has blown most world scrum halves out of the water. In spite of their size, they have used their acumen to push back at their physically endowed contemporaries.
Deep inside the belly of the Western Cape, inside the winelands community of Kylemore, just outside Stellenbosch, South Africa’s answer was found.
His name: Herschel Jantjies.
The 23-year-old has risen to such prominence this year that a place in the Springbok squad, at least this winter, would not be surprising to many people.
But, as the saying goes: “It takes a long time to become an overnight success.”
FOCUSED Herschel Jantjies. Picture: Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images
He used all available avenues, including the SuperSport Rugby Challenge, to put himself in the Western Province (WP) selectors’ line of sight.
“It was great to be involved in the SuperSport Rugby Challenge,” Jantjies says.
“When I was playing at the SuperSport Rugby Challenge, I was surrounded by a great group of guys.
“Guys who can play Super Rugby but, unfortunately, because of the quality of talent we have, there are not enough playing opportunities and you can’t accommodate everyone.
“It was a stepping stone to the level I’m at now, much like the Varsity Cup and Varsity Shield.
“Every player’s dream – at least for me – is to play for Western Province and the Stormers. The SuperSport Rugby Challenge definitely helped a lot in my realising that dream.”
Now in its third season, MultiChoice’s SuperSport Rugby Challenge is South African rugby’s feel-good story that continues to take the country’s rugby in a whole new direction.
Communities with a rich rugby heritage, which were left behind when rugby went professional, now get to soak up the pulsating rugby action the tournament dishes out every week.
It’s the tournament that Varsity Club and developmental rugby superstars aspire to as the next step in their careers before Super Rugby and, ultimately, the Springboks.
With more than 150 matches played to date, 68 players have moved up to new heights. About 41 play for the Super Rugby teams, 27 play for Pro 14 sides and four – Sbu Nkosi, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier – are playing for the Springboks.
Last year, Jantjies played in all nine WP games, starting five. The 2017 champions didn’t defend their title, but Jantjies had won hearts in his beloved home province.
By the time the Currie Cup arrived later in the year, he was a key cog for WP and started the final at Newlands, which they lost to the Sharks 17-12, their only defeat of the tournament.
With every challenge placed in front of him and every level up, he seems to excel. How has he done it?
“I always put my mind to it and train and prepare myself for when the opportunity comes so that I’ll be ready for it,” he says.
“When I was at UWC [University of the Western Cape], I always prepared myself and trained as if the coach would give me a call up and, when it came, I was ready for it and I was able to make the step up to the SuperSport Rugby Challenge.
“It was the same with Super Rugby. You can’t think of yourself as a lower player. You must believe in yourself. If you don’t do that and the opportunity comes, it’s going to half scare you and you won’t be able to handle the pressure.
“That’s how I see it. You can set yourself goals and stuff, but things don’t always work out the way you want them to. But I always put my mind to it and train as if I’m going to play at the next level the next weekend,” Jantjies says.
In him are remnants, fragments and fabric of what makes a Springbok. He’s been influenced by WP alumni who’ve carried the team’s winning tradition. The likes of Cheslin Kolbe, Dillyn Leyds and Bolla Conradie, who have become Springboks.
As for knocking the All Blacks off their perch, Jantjies says he’s studied the best in the world – Smith, Perenara and Conor Murray of Ireland – and the best South Africa has had over the years – Francois Hougaard and Faf de Klerk.
It is the combination of these players’ attributes that will make Jantjies a treat to watch and an asset in green and gold.
A youth month project in partnership with Multichoice