There’s been a lot of focus recently on the brilliant form of Manie Libbok but the DHL Stormers flyhalf would not be shining like he is, and he’d be the first to admit it, if it were not for the players who complete the jigsaw pieces around him.
Dan du Plessis, now that he’s had an unbroken run from injury, has had a stellar season at inside centre and is confirming why he was so highly rated in the age-groups. That has been both helpful for Libbok and for coach John Dobson, who might otherwise have found he had to play Damian Willemse in the midfield rather than in the last line of defence, where he’s most likely to play for the Springboks. Willemse wore the No 12 in last year’s Vodacom United Rugby Championship final.
But there’s been a lot that is good happening on the other side of Libbok too. Indeed, if you look back at the Stormers team that played against the Bulls in last year’s final at the DHL Stadium, the No 9 position might be an area where the home team are significantly better off going into Saturday’s decider against Munster.
That statement might surprise you if you recall that in 2022 Herschel Jantjies was wearing the Stormers No 9 in the deciding game of the championship. But Jantjies is a better and more improved version of himself now as he’s returned to the form that made him a World Cup-winning Bok in his breakout season of 2019.
JANTJIES IS A MORE COMPLETE PLAYER NOW
Actually, he’s done more than that. The 27-year-old, like so many of the Stormers players, has profited from the work of the special coaching team that guides the team and added extra strings to his bow. He is certainly a different player to what he was as a 23-year-old in 2019, with his kicking game having made the most noticeable improvement.
It was Jantjies’ pinpoint and decisive tactical kicking game that helped the Stormers pin the Bulls in their own half and keep them under pressure in the first half of the recent quarterfinal in Cape Town. Some of his kicks had the look of real class to them and it was almost inconceivable that he was the same player who has delivered such inconsistent performances since the return to play from Covid.
“You don’t wake up one morning and decide okay now I am going to have a bad season, it is something that just happens, but hard work gets that right and that is what I have done,” says Jantjies.
“A professional player has to constantly work on his game in order to improve and you need to target your weaknesses for extra attention. I have worked hard on my kicking game and the kicking coach Gareth Wright has been a big help in that regard.”
DE WET FITS THE GAME LIKE A GLOVE TOO
It’s not just Jantjies’ return to form though that makes the Stormers better off going into this final than they were last year - it is also the fact that Paul de Wet, who fits seamlessly into the team when Jantjies isn’t there, is fit and ready to play. De Wet, along with the aforementioned Du Plessis and wing Leolin Zas, is one of the stalwarts from last year who missed out on playing in the final because of injury but should make up for it this year.
Like Janjties, De Wet has an X-factor, and is also one of the quickest players in the business, as he frequently shows with his support play and the way he gives defenders almost no chance once he is put into space. This happened at a crucial stage of the quarterfinal against Connacht, with De Wet’s try near the hour mark effectively killing off a Connacht fightback.
Ironically the man who played as the back-up scrumhalf in last year’s final, Godlen Masimla, also has the pace to make him a potential wing, and both players give head coach John Dobson the option of going with a six/two bench split between backs and forwards as they can cover the wide position should it be required.
However, with respect to Masimla, he isn’t quite at the level of De Wet and Jantjies, and doesn’t boast the same top-level experience, so scrumhalf is an area that, in more than one way, the Stormers are better off now than they were 11 months ago (last year’s final was played in June).
NUDGING TO GET THAT BOK PLACE BACK
The Boks are arguably also better off now at scrumhalf than they were when they won the World Cup in Japan four years ago, which means that it was not just Jantjies’ dicey form that cost him his place as the second man in the pecking order behind Faf de Klerk. There’s also been the form and growth of several young scrumhalves coming through, most notably the Sharks duo of Jaden Hendrikse and Grant Williams, both of whom should be challenging Cobus Reinach to join the back-up group behind De Klerk when the Boks go to France later this year.
However, it is understood there are doubts over when Hendrikse will be fully rehabilitated from the injury that saw him miss the Sharks’ trip to Dublin for the URC quarterfinal, so Jantjies could well come back into the mix. In fact, he should be in the mix regardless given that he is now playing as well, if not better, than he was when he gained the crucial experience of being a World Cup winner.
PLAYING AGAINST WORLD-RATED MUNSTER STAR A GOOD CHALLENGE
Talking of experience, winning a World Cup is not experience that Jantjies’ opposite number in Saturday’s final, Conor Murray, can boast. But Murray does have experience in volumes, and apart from being a Six Nations and Grand Slam winner with Ireland, he has had extensive experience of being a British and Irish Lion who he has captained on occasion.
“You don’t really play one on one in your positions, so sometimes it is wrong to say it is you against him. But it is going to be a nice challenge playing against Conor Murray, as you want to play against the best and he is one of the best,” said Jantjies.
“He's played more than 100 games for his country. He's an experienced player and he's definitely someone I can learn from.”
The Springbok coaches would have seen enough of Jantjies, both this season and before, to know what he is capable of, and if they didn’t rate him they wouldn’t have backed him when he was so green back in 2019. There are more options now of course, with Embrose Papier showing the form that saw him rated highly by John Mitchell when he coached the Bulls, and former Shark Sanele Nohamba, so influential recently for his new franchise, the Emirates Lions, isn’t even part of the Bok training group.
However, there is nothing like a top performance in a really big game, and against a top-rated opponent, which the classy Murray is, to nudge the selectors out of any indecision they may have. And the diminutive but explosive Jantjies has that stage at the DHL Stadium on Saturday evening.