To err is human, to be a flyhalf...
American football coach Lou Holtz probably put it best.
“You're never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you're never as bad as they say when you lose.”
While he may have been speaking about his own football team, that quote could easily be associated with any top-class young flyhalf in South Africa today.
We’re unforgiving folk really. South Africans have been spoilt with top flyhalves across the years as the Springboks have dominated. A good pivot was as common as a massive pack. It’s rice krispies for breakfast, but lately there’s been a lot of snap, crackle, and very little pop from rugby fans about the No 10 position.
It’s a tough one. The playmaker, the driver of the engine, the flyhalf is the man who controls the game. He is the pressure man with kicks, the tactician on attack, the target on defence.
Often he is the poster boy of the team, the hero of a thousand kids and the glory man when the team wins. But when they fail, he is the first to get hammered by every critic in the book.
We’ve seen it before. Naas Botha was legendary. I had the worst birthday in 1987 when in the rain he demolished then Transvaal in a second-half kicking display of absolute brilliance. But as much as his brilliance was admired, he was hated by anyone outside of Pretoria.
Of the other great flyhalves of our time – Jannie de Beer, Henry Honiball, Braam van Straaten – none was the complete player. De Beer couldn’t get a backline going, but man he could kick (just ask Clive Woodward in 99); Honiball was an attacking genius, but had less of a boot on him than his scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen; Van Straaten was a dead shot, but lacked flair.
There are few flyhalves quite as complete as Dan Carter. But for some unfailing reason we expect every flyhalf to be a Naas Botha, the ultimate kicker but with the flair of Thierry Lacroix. We want it all, and if we don’t get it we aren’t satisfied.
Which brings me to where we sit with the Springboks ahead of a massive World Cup: We suddenly have masses of talent at 10, but just as many critics waiting to shoot them down.
We even have a host of pivots for the future, just waiting to step into the limelight. But we have absolutely no patience to let players develop.
Dan Carter wasn’t always the wunderkind. A shy, uncompromising player, he was given time to grow – first under Andrew Mehrtens and alongside the best midfielder a flyhalf could want, Aaron Mauger. A massive talent, he was backed and nurtured, to become the All Black kingpin he is today.
Remember Derick Hougaard? Perhaps more limited in his game abilities, he had everything in his favour. Winning a Currie Cup at 19 takes some doing, and for those who forget, he even scored a try in the 2002 final.
But then he arrived at Super 12 practice, and was hammered by new coach Rudy Joubert. When things went wrong he was called arrogant. When Hougaard worked harder, Joubert did all he could to switch off the lights (which ironically he did while Hougaard was practising one night).
Hougaard wasn’t nurtured, but still went on to become Loftus’s liefling. He perhaps never reached his potential due to a combination of his own mental frailties and lack of support in that crucial 2003 season.
Morne Steyn played in his shadow until getting his chance and showed his big-match game-winning temperament to sink the British and Irish Lions with a 50-metre scorcher in 2009.
And if you remember well, Butch James was harassed for his tackling, but years later was a better player who won the 2007 World Cup. Peter Grant, this year’s Stormers sensation, was also almost thrown away in his first few seasons. A trip to Japan shored up his game, and the Stormers are enjoying the benefit.
The point here is that not everybody is a wunderkind. Pat Lambie might be able to play rugby at 20, as may James O’Connor and Quade Cooper. But if your name isn’t Pat, James or Quade, it doesn’t mean we throw you away.
Many a player, including the likes of Steyn, James and Grant, developed slower, but have been exceptional at times. Lambie is a shooting star, but even he will find days that are darker, and will need to reach deep to overcome the inevitable criticism that will come his way.
Spare a thought for Elton Jantjies. At 20 he is constantly being compared to Lambie, he is blamed for every Lions defeat and this week was dropped from the Lions' squad. There are frustrations galore from fans, with so many ready to write him off. Mistakes happen; how players react is what makes them great.
Jantjies has his own struggles these days, but he is far from the finished article. There are elements of his game that he needs to work on. But to dismiss him outright would be to waste a wonderful talent. As coach John Mitchell pointed out: “he is a young man with a great future, but he has to stand up and become a leader.”
The same goes for young flyhalves around the country: think Francois Brummer, Lionel Cronje, Sias Ebersohn, Johan Goosen, Gary van Aswegen, Burton Francis, and others. All that these players need, is to have the support to play at their full potential. If they make it, we will all be victors; if they don’t, the next generation is ready to step in.
Jantjies and his young turks are the future of our game, and just because every flyhalf cannot be a superstar at 20, it doesn’t mean they aren’t good enough to win a World Cup one day.
As basketball coach John Wooden said: “Winning takes talent, to repeat it takes character.”
All of these young flyhalves are building immense character, which just may pay off if they are given the right mix of support, coaching and room to develop.