The Lions roared into the SuperRugby final with a 42-30 victory over the Highlanders at Ellis Park on Saturday due in no small part to a masterclass in flyhalf play by Elton Jantjies.
Jantjies was his usual brilliant self with ball in hand, scoring one try and setting up another for wing Courtnall Skosan with a dazzling blindside break from his own 22, while he was once again reliable kicking for poles, nailing four conversions and three penalties from his eight shots at goal. He was also strong defensively, holding his channel well and it was his hit in midfield in the 24th minute that provided the loose ball for centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg to score and increase the Lions’ lead to 17-3.
But it was his tactical kicking that was at another level in Saturday’s semifinal as the Lions consistently cleared any danger in their own 22, nullifying the strong kicking game of the Highlanders and driving them back in the territory battle, as well as turning their defensive line around very well.
Jantjies said it was due to getting the decision-making right on the day.
“It’s a privilege to play with this group of players and it just came down to making the right decisions. You look to create opportunities and you hope the gap opens up, otherwise you kick. I just play what is in front of me,” Jantjies said. “I just enjoyed it out there, we worked hard at playing at huge intensity and to go for the whole 80 minutes, which we needed to do.”
Coach Johan Ackermann was more forthcoming in praising his flyhalf general.
“It was very important that we did well at the exits, as shown by the one time we let it slip and the Highlanders scored. In general we were accurate at our exits, and decision-making goes hand-in-hand with that. The kicking and passing games were both good tonight, and now’s the right time for players like Elton to be in really good form,” Ackermann said.
Jantjies had some bad defensive misses when playing for the Springboks against Ireland in the June internationals to raise some question marks over that area of his game, but the 25-year-old was excellent in defence on Saturday and put it down to hard work during the week.
“I’ve had a few challenges, but this week I did a lot of one-on-one tackling work, I focused on that,” Jantjies said.
The Lions will now fly to Wellington on Sunday night, arriving midnight on Monday, and one of the features of the final will be the battle of the flyhalves between Hurricanes star Beauden Barrett and Jantjies, probably the two most in-form number 10s in the world right now.
But Jantjies was not going to be drawn on that match-up.
“I don’t have individual battles, it’s all about the team and just making sure I do my job for the team. The Hurricanes and Beauden Barrett are playing good rugby, and obviously they’re one-up on us after giving us 50 points at Ellis Park a few months ago. But we learnt a lot from our last game against them and we played some good stuff tonight. But we will have to reassess again on Monday,” Jantjies said.
Ackermann said he was content going to Wellington for a chance to put the cherry on top of what has already been a historic season for the Lions – their best ever in SuperRugby.
“Three years ago this week we were playing promotion/relegation and now this week we’ve made the final, which is really stunning. In finals, I believe everyone has a chance, they’re 50/50. Yes, we have to travel, but we won three out of four games last year and two out of three this year on the road, so this team loves to be together and to travel.
“It’s a once-off game and, as the Highlanders reminded us when they came into our changeroom after the game, they won there in Wellington last year. The pressure is on the Hurricanes, it’s a home game for them,” Ackermann said.