Kriel: I’ve never felt better

The absence of rugby has only heightened Jesse Kriel’s sense of motivation, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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Kriel holds himself to a higher standard. Speak to his teammates and coaches, and they will tell you that the 27-year-old centre – who has played 46 Tests for South Africa – works harder than most.

Handre Pollard has played alongside Kriel at the Junior Boks, the Bulls and the Springboks. ‘He’s a machine,’ the Bok flyhalf says. ‘I don’t know anyone with a stronger work ethic.’

Lood de Jager, another close friend and teammate, offers a prediction. ‘I can see him playing through to the 2027 World Cup. He looks after his body so well. It isn’t an exaggeration to suggest that Jesse will compete at the highest level for a long time yet.’

Kriel considers these endorsements carefully before offering a response. After what transpired in 2020, the outside centre is desperate to play one more Test – let alone another 40.

It’s been 17 months since Kriel last featured for South Africa in the opening game of the 2019 World Cup. A serious hamstring injury cut short his campaign, although he did return to Japan to watch the Boks lift the Webb Ellis Cup.

Then the Covid-19 crisis laid all of South Africa’s grand plans to waste. While most of the top Test teams returned to action during the latter stages of the 2020 season, the Boks remained in international limbo. Meanwhile, Kriel battled for game time at his club, Canon Eagles, as a spike in Covid-19 cases limited matches in Japan’s Top League.

Somehow, Kriel has managed to take all of these disappointments in his stride.

‘That World Cup win is the highlight of my career, even though I was injured for most of the campaign,’ he states emphatically. ‘If you look at that squad, 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] and then reaped the rewards of the 2019 Rugby Championship and World Cup titles by being resilient and finding solutions.

‘It was a tough day when I heard that I was being sent home, but it didn’t take too long for me to shift my energy and focus. I have absolutely no regrets about the 2019 World Cup and the way things turned out. I gave my all to the Springbok team wherever I could and the boys did us proud by getting the job done.’

Kriel confirms that the players – some of whom are based in far-flung locations like Japan, France and the United Kingdom – have remained in close contact with the Bok coaches.

‘Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have put plans in place before the 2021 Test season. Obviously a lot has happened over the past year and events were out of our control. I’d prefer to focus on what I can control. In the end, I’ve just got to work as hard as I can for the chance to play against the British & Irish Lions.’

When Kriel joined the Bulls in 2014, he promised himself that he would work harder than anyone else in the squad. Eventually, the extra sessions in the gym and on the training field became part his routine.

‘I’m always searching for something else that can make me better,’ he says of his approach to fitness, nutrition and ultimately performance.

‘Don’t get me wrong … there have been few times when a little voice in my head has said, “Maybe you’ve done enough, take the next day or two off.” That’s the kind of mental battle you have with yourself. That’s the challenge.’

The extensive break in 2020 provided him with the chance to participate in a full pre-season programme and he hopes that his recent investment will pay dividends down the line.

‘There’s been a big focus on conditioning and I can honestly say I’ve never felt better in my life. The extra time off has also given me a chance to develop other areas of my game – things I wouldn’t have had time for otherwise.

‘We have a new attacking coach at Canon and he has introduced us to a range of training methods aimed at sharpening our skills. I want to be seen more as a playmaker, so I have to improve my balance and my ability to deliver an attacking kick from either foot. There’s obviously a lot of speed and evasion work. Ultimately I want to gain an edge that will put me in the picture when the Boks select their team.’

Former Bok captains such as John Smit and Fourie du Preez believe that a Lions series is as big and as important as a World Cup campaign. Kriel, a veteran of two global tournaments, has been dreaming about facing the famous northern hemisphere side since he was a student at Maritzburg College. South Africa’s 2-1 victory in the 2009 series against the Lions is still fresh in his mind.

‘That try scored by Jaque Fourie in the corner in the second Test was one of the greatest of all time. I watched that as a rugby-mad 15-year-old and dreamed about emulating those feats. A few years later, I got the chance to rub shoulders with my heroes, to learn from them and to play alongside them at a World Cup.

‘I’ve come a long way since making my debut in 2015, though. I’m a more complete player – although I don’t see myself as the finished article. I’m always pushing myself to go further.’

It remains to be seen where and when the series between South Africa and the Lions will take place. The recent Super Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup games were staged in empty stadiums due to Covid-19 protocols. If the situation in South Africa doesn’t improve, the powers that be may stage the series in the United Kingdom – or may even delay the tour until 2022.

There’s yet another reason Kriel is determined to play a part for South Africa in that series. As recently as November 2020, he discovered that his great-grandfather, John Hodgson, had played for the Lions on the 1930 tour of Australasia.

Hodgson started in two Test against the All Blacks – helping the Lions to a 6-3 victory in Dunedin and featuring in the 15-10 loss in Auckland. The loose forward also earned seven Test caps for England, including one against the Springboks at Twickenham in 1932.

Kriel will wear the green and gold of the Boks rather than the scarlet of the Lions when the two sides clash. Nevertheless, he wants to make his great-grandfather proud and to add to a unique and special legacy.

‘I’d always known I had an ancestor who played for England, but I didn’t know that he also played for the Lions,’ he says. ‘We found out when our family in England put in a request for his Lions cap. I’d be lying if I said this news hasn’t got me even more excited for the coming series.’

Lukhanyo Am travelled to the 2019 World Cup as the first-choice No 13. He produced several influential performances and was at his best in the decider against England – where he had a hand in a crucial try for Makazole Mapimpi.

Am should continue to start for the Boks in the near future. And yet, as Erasmus has explained, Kriel and Am will have an important role to play as senior players in the wider group.

‘When I look back at the past two or three years, what strikes me is our preparation and performance as a collective,’ Kriel says. ‘The alignment camps were instrumental because we all knew what was expected from us as players and what Rassie and his team wanted from us. The work ethic in the group and the desperation to improve is what made the environment so competitive and enjoyable.

‘You need results to generate belief, or course. We got some big results, such as when we beat the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2018, and then started winning consistently. Everything, including our confidence, started to snowball.’

It’s been more than a year since the Boks won the World Cup, and more than year since South Africa’s top players combined in a Test. That said, the desire to build on the platform that was laid in 2019 and to win the Lions series as well as the 2023 World Cup still burns.

‘That Lions series in particular is at the back of every player’s mind – we all want to be part of it,’ says Kriel.

‘I want to be part of the Springbok set-up for as long as I play rugby. There’s little that tops playing for the Boks, and to face the Lions would be a dream come true.’

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Craig Lewis