This time, last year, the South African rugby community was only starting to get to know Herschel Jantjies.
Those on the inside were aware of the talented young Paul Roos product who had made his way through the Western Province youth system, but Jantjies’ break came in 2019 when, under the leadership of coach Robbie Fleck, he was given an extended run in the Stormers No 9 jersey following an injury to veteran Jano Vermaak early in the campaign.
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It was the beginning of what has been a whirlwind year for Jantjies, who is celebrating his 24th birthday in lockdown on Wednesday.
Now, just nine months after his Test debut against Australia at Ellis Park, Jantjies is a World Cup winner and was on the park when referee Jerome Garces blew the final whistle in the 2 November final against England.
He is still recovering from a broken leg that he picked up in the Super Rugby clash against the Sharks at Kings Park over a month ago in the tournament’s last match in South Africa before it was suspended due to the coronavirus crisis.
So much has happened since Jantjies’ Springbok debut that it is easy to forget the instant impact he had.
His form in Super Rugby had caught the attention of national coach Rassie Erasmus, who included Jantjies in a national camp in May last year. Almost out of nowhere, Jantjies was catapulted into the starting line-up for the 2019 Rugby Championship opener against the Wallabies in Johannesburg.
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What followed was one of the most memorable Boks debuts of all time as Jantjies delivered a performance rich in x-factor, opportunism and skill, scoring two tries as the Boks ran out 35-17 winners.
The next weekend, in Wellington, Jantjies came off the bench to steal a try after the hooter against the All Blacks to secure a 16-16 draw that was massive for the Boks in the context of them ultimately winning their first Rugby Championship in a decade.
After just two Test matches, Jantjies had moved ahead of the likes of Louis Schreuder, Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier in the Springbok scrumhalf pecking order and, all of a sudden, he was a near certainty for the World Cup squad in Japan.
His role at the World Cup was limited given the importance of Faf de Klerk to the kick-heavy Springbok game plan, but Jantjies had Erasmus’ full backing and would have been entrusted with starting the big matches if he needed to.
Jantjies has a natural ability to spark attacks out of very little, his distribution is fast, crisp and accurate and his kicking game has improved immensely since he was first introduced into the Springbok set-up.
De Klerk is still just 28 himself and should easily make the 2023 World Cup in France, but in Jantjies the Boks have a World Cup winner whose better years are surely ahead of him.
Somehow, through all of the hype of the last year, Jantjies has managed to keep his feet on the ground and he has taken the successes in his stride.
He may have achieved more in nine months than most players will in their entire careers, but Jantjies knows that he must keep looking forward.
This country has been blessed with some superb scrumhalves since readmission to international sport with the late Joost van der Westhuizen and Fourie du Preez at the very top of that list. That is the pedigree that Jantjies wants to be associated with one day and while he may have a World Cup winners medal in common with those two greats, his total of 10 Test caps reveals just how far there is to go.
Jantjies wants to become a Springbok legend; a player that fans will remember forever.
If he stays fit, grounded and maintains the work ethic he displayed in his breakthrough year, then there is no reason why he can’t become exactly that. The talent, clearly, is there.
Winning a second World Cup wouldn’t hurt those ambitions, either, and the good news is that Jantjies has time on his side.