Jesse Kriel’s international rugby career has seen him go from a man who could never get dropped from the Springbok side, to a player with uncertainty characterising his position in the squad. 2021 could be the year that Kriel claims back his place as an invaluable member of the Springbok 23, writes Oliver Keohane.
Injury ended Jesse Kriel’s Rugby World Cup as early as the opening match against the All Blacks. Damian De Allende and Lukhanyo Am then went from strength to strength in the tournament as an outstanding midfield combination to help the Springboks to World Cup glory. This piece is by no means meant to detract from the qualities of either of those players, but rather to act as a reminder of why Jesse Kriel can and should remain an important part of the Springbok squad.
Rewind four years to 2015, where a 21-year old Kriel debuted outside De Allende to score a try against the Wallabies. Though the Boks went down 24-20 that day, the potential that Pollard would be combining with Kriel and De Allende as his centres seemed a bright prospect for Springbok rugby. Then Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks started to implode, and seemingly so too did Kriel.
Following the low of the Japanese loss, where poor defence from Kriel cost the Springboks the try that ultimately buried them, his confidence appeared shot. Kriel remained indifferent post the World Cup, showing glimpses of his class but never appearing to fully kick on, and many believed his form did not always permit selection. Perhaps though, this is due to an indecisiveness around what his role actually was, coupled with the belief that there still was a role to be played. The result was a lot of criticism from the South African rugby public.
However a reminder of Kriel’s qualities and capabilities is necessary, especially in the context of a tour that requires more than just your starting XV. Kriel is an outstanding athlete, and during Heyneke Meyer’s time as Springbok coach he told me that Kriel was second only to Francois Hougaard in fitness at the Bulls. Kriel has also been capped internationally 46 times, starting in 37 of them, and there is something to be said of any player on their way to being a half-centurion, regardless of public perception. In those tests Kriel has contributed 12 tries, played at fullback, centre and wing and made it to two Rugby World Cups. He is only 27 years old.
I am always cognisant of the fact that while we as a rugby public may perceive certain short-comings in a player, there is something coaches appreciate that we can’t, and there is a reason that through three Springbok coaches Kriel has remained a permanent fixture in the international set-up.
What we want though, is for Kriel to fully kick on. To find his role, claim it and own it. And he has the chance to do so in the most spectacular occasion, taking part in a Lions tour three generations down from his grandfather, John Hodgson, who played 15 times for the Lions, including two tests against the All Blacks in the 1930 tour to New Zealand and Australia.
“My great grandfather played for the Lions, so this is quite a personal one for me and it’s special to be involved,” said Kriel, who as a schoolboy watched on TV as Bulls, and now Springbok-again teammate Morne Steyn kicked the Boks to victory in 2009 when the British & Irish Lions last toured.
Jesse Kriel for twenty to thirty minutes against dead legs would be lethal. He is one of the fastest centres in world rugby, so why not use him as part of an extended bomb-squad? His role in Springbok rugby may not be as a starting outside centre, but not many others are equally adept across three positions and very few are physically primed as Kriel is, to open a game up in the second half. Rugby is no longer a 15-man game, and it is a good thing for South African rugby to have the likes of Kriel at our disposal when we host the British & Irish Lions.
WATCH: Kriel’s class