Jesse Kriel ranks South Africa’s World Cup triumph as the highlight of his career in spite of the tournament-ending injury he sustained ahead of the playoffs. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Does it really matter whether you play in the World Cup final if your team finishes on the right side of the result? Some of the best in the business have wrestled with this question for years.
Jean de Villiers tore his bicep in the Springboks’ opening game of the 2007 World Cup and did not feature again in the lead-up to the decider. Several months after that tournament, De Villiers told me in an interview for SA Rugby magazine that he still harboured feelings of disappointment even though he’d received a winner’s medal along with the rest of the squad.
Dan Carter declared that he had unfinished business in the wake of the 2011 World Cup. Like De Villiers, the All Blacks No 10 sustained a tournament-ending injury in the pool phase and played no part for New Zealand during a successful playoff campaign. Unlike De Villiers, Carter received another chance to play in a final and win a medal as a member of the match-day squad in 2015.
Kriel doesn’t hesitate when he’s asked for his view on the matter. The outside centre injured his hamstring in the opening game of the 2019 World Cup and was sent home 10 days later. When Kriel and Trevor Nyakane returned to Japan to support the team in the final against England, they displayed no sign of resentment.
Now that he’s had six months to reflect, Kriel tells SARugbymag.co.za that he wouldn’t change a thing. This statement speaks to the culture that’s been built by the team over a two-year period, and indeed what the title means to South Africa in a greater context.
‘That’s definitely the highlight of my career,’ Kriel said.
‘If you look at the squad that won the World Cup, a lot of the players were around four years before. They went through the tough times in 2016 [when the Boks lost a record eight Tests]. By being resilient and actively searching for solutions, the team eventually reaped the rewards [the 2019 Rugby Championship and World Cup titles].
‘The World Cup win was extremely important for South Africa as a nation. As players, we understood from the outset what this kind of result could do to bring people together.’
Kriel smiled and celebrated with his 32 teammates when the Boks received the Webb Ellis Cup after the final at the Yokohama Stadium. His demeanour was very different a month earlier, of course, when he stood on the sideline and watched the team train at their base in Omaezaki.
On that particular day, it was confirmed that the injured Kriel would return to South Africa and that a replacement (Damian Willemse) would join the squad in Japan.
‘I’m a very positive guy and extremely lucky to be doing what I do but, yes, that was a really tough day,’ he admitted.
‘It didn’t take me too long to shift my focus toward a new goal, though. I put all my energy into my recovery. I wanted to be ready if there was another injury and the Boks needed me to return. That kept me going.
‘I have absolutely no regrets about the 2019 World Cup and the way things turned out,’ he added. ‘I gave my all to the Springbok team wherever I could. I didn’t get to play in the final, but the boys did us proud by getting the job done.’
Lukhanyo Am travelled to that tournament as the first-choice No 13. And yet, as coach Rassie Erasmus and many others pointed out, Kriel remained an important member of the squad and, at that stage, was playing some of the best rugby of his career.
The competition for starting places over the course of the 2018 and 2019 seasons was fierce. Kriel, however, feels that there was more to the team’s success than the development of two or three good options in each position.
‘When I look back at the past two years, what strikes me is our preparation,’ Kriel said. ‘The alignment camps were instrumental because we all knew what was expected from us and what Rassie and his team wanted.
‘Of course, you need results to generate belief. We got some big results in 2018, and then started winning consistently. Everything, including our confidence, started to snowball.
‘The work ethic in the group and the desperation to improve is what makes the environment so competitive and extremely enjoyable,’ Kriel added, using the present tense deliberately.
South Africa is still in lockdown due to the Covid-19 crisis and all rugby tournaments have been suspended. The Test matches scheduled for July – against Scotland and Georgia – are unlikely to proceed as planned.
When Test rugby resumes, new coach Jacques Nienaber won’t want for options. At the very least, he will have access to 30 of the 33 players that featured at the 2019 World Cup in the lead-up to the series against the British & Irish Lions. Beast Mtawarira, Francois Louw and Schalk Brits have retired.
As good as the Boks were in Japan, they could be even sharper and stronger when the Lions come to town in the middle of 2021. Like everyone else among that group, Kriel has already set his sights on that series.
Kriel returned to South Africa in late March after his stint with the Canon Eagles in Japan was cut short due to the coronavirus outbreak. Since then, he’s been punishing his body with two conditioning sessions per day, and this interview was conducted shortly after a particularly brutal home workout.
‘I want to be part of the Springbok set-up for as long as I play rugby,’ he said. ‘It’s something I will never take for granted and an opportunity I will never stop working for.
‘Little tops playing for the Boks and being part of the series against the Lions would be a dream come true.’
Photos: Getty Images/AFP Photo/SteveHaagSports