Jaco Kriel's red-hot form for the Lions warrants Springbok selection this year, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day newspaper.
Kriel was world-class at Newlands. Such is the quality of loose-forward talent in South African rugby that Kriel is no guarantee for a Springbok squad.
His form this season has consistently been among the best of the South African flankers – with Stormers and Springbok veteran Schalk Burger, the only flanker who matches Kriel for form. Burger has international pedigree, a World Cup winner's medal and a winning habit.
Burger has history at Test level; Kriel has potential. But his form is red hot.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has stated that there are 12 loose forwards good enough to play Test rugby for the Springboks in South Africa. Then there are foreign-based South African loose forwards who have played for the Springboks and continue to excel in the northern hemisphere club competitions. It's the position in which South Africa is most blessed for depth.
Meyer, when questioned on Kriel’s lack of game time on the 2014 Springbok November tour overseas, asked at whose expense?
Kriel was a newbie with Meyer’s Bok culture. And the tour was more an introduction to Meyer, the Bok coaching staff and players he has only ever played against at Currie Cup and Super Rugby level.
Kriel’s impact in the 2014 Currie Cup was immense but it was a tournament devoid of the regular current Test Springboks. He toured with the Boks, but more as a tourist within the elite group.
Now he has again made an impact in Super Rugby. Meyer may feel 12 doesn’t fit into five but Kriel certainly fits into the European club scene and French clubs, most notably Toulon, have expressed an interest.
The right rugby decision for Kriel would be to play in Europe next year. He is just 26 years old, the money would be incomparable to what he could command in South Africa and if he dominates the Top 14 and European Cup challenge in the company of some of the world’s best players, he makes an even stronger case for national selection.
Kriel’s performance against the Stormers had all the ingredients of a Test flanker. The pace and skills can still be overlooked as that of a dazzler in Super Rugby, but his physicality, decision-making at the breakdown and mongrel in contact are qualities that define the good from the nearly men at Test level.
Again, the question, at whose expense?
I remember a certain Duane Vermeulen producing weekly performances that screamed ‘pick me for the Boks’ for four to five years.
The Bok coaches who refused to pick him also asked at whose expense? Now Vermeulen is the first name picked in a Bok Test pack and he is consistently in the top two No 8s in international rugby.
The Stormers and Springboks without Vermeulen are a weaker side but for a World Cup cycle of four years the national selectors were convinced his services could be overlooked.
Kriel’s form reminds me of Vermeulen’s provincial and Super Rugby apprenticeship, because when Kriel does finally feel the comforting fit of a green and gold Test jersey the potential impact is that of Vermeulen’s.
Meyer’s mutterings indicate he isn’t as convinced about the roaring Lion. It’s one that Meyer will struggle to convince many doesn’t warrant a challenge.
The Lions were damn good against the Stormers. They were enterprising, the equal of the SA conference-winning hosts in every aspect and on the scoreboard. The two sides were tied 19-19 but the Lions were centimetres away from winning the match and a first ever Super Rugby play-off.
Ultimately, the Lions this season have been closer to seven than six in the tournament’s top eight. That’s a success story for a franchise that has been a Super Rugby embarrassment.
Kriel, though, has been brilliant.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann doesn’t easily describe a player as having the X factor; an individual with that something inspirational and special.
When it comes to Kriel, the Lions coach and former Springbok lock, doesn’t question if, but when he plays Test rugby.
Form or history?
In a World Cup year, so often history is favoured and an opportunity is lost. I fear this could happen with Kriel because form and winning carry momentum and weight into any competition; World Cup included.
Meyer is loyal and conservative with selections he believes to be the right ones. I’d urge the national coach to back form in the Rugby Championship to have a like-for-like comparison to players whose Test history makes a stronger case this season than any consistent form in Super Rugby.
The Lions this season have been robust and more refined than raw. Kriel, though, has been the real deal. He was a year ago. He is even better now. What could he be in September?
Very good players make for a competitive Test team. X-factor players make for a World Cup-winning team.
Kriel threw down the gauntlet to Meyer at Newlands, just as his Lions teammates did to the Stormers. The Lions, as a team, didn’t lose but they didn’t win.
Kriel’s return, in Meyer’s analysis, will hopefully be more rewarding.
Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images