The Lion King

Jaco Kriel could force his way into the Springbok squad with another strong Super Rugby showing, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

On a warm afternoon in Johannesburg, the Golden Lions’ perfect Currie Cup season was on the brink of an unexpected implosion. Trailing by three points heading into the latter stages of the semi-final against the Cheetahs, it appeared as if the Lions’ 10-match winning streak was about to come to an end at the worst possible time.

Jaco Kriel, however, had different ideas. Receiving the ball on the left wing after a typically fearless counter-attack from the Lions, the explosive flanker beat three defenders from a seemingly impossible position and cantered over for the match-winning try.

It was a moment of magic that fans had come to expect from Kriel in 2015, with the dynamic loose forward blazing a trail that brought him firmly into Springbok reckoning.

Although Kriel deservedly earned inclusion in the Bok squad for their end-of-year tour in 2014, it was in more of an introductory capacity as he familiarised himself with the national set-up.

His lack of game time on that tour came down to one very simple question, which rang true throughout 2015: at whose expense could he earn inclusion?

If there is one area where South African rugby is abundantly blessed with depth, it is at loose forward. To illustrate that point, consider the omissions from last year’s World Cup squad – Heinrich Brüssow, Marcell Coetzee, Oupa Mohoje, Warren Whiteley, Nizaam Carr and Pierre Spies.

And then there’s Kriel, one of South Africa’s most consistently in-form flankers throughout the 2015 Super Rugby season. His impact during the Lions’ highly encouraging campaign was immense – an assertion perhaps best demonstrated during a world-class performance in their final game against the Stormers, with the Lions earning a draw to finish in a credible eighth spot on the overall log.

After an outstanding 2014 Currie Cup season, when Kriel rated top for clean breaks, defenders beaten and tries scored, the Lions star’s statistics made for compelling reading in last year’s Super Rugby.

According to the Vodacom Rugby Stats App, he ended with 22 turnovers (the third highest in the tournament), beat 44 defenders, made 144 carries and completed 134 tackles.

It was a contribution that understandably saw him knocking loudly on the Springbok door, while enabling the Lions to finish the season with a flourish.

‘Jaco was absolutely outstanding last year. The commitment he displays in training and on the field makes him the sort of individual who players look up to,’ Lions coach Johan Ackermann tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘He’s grown a lot as a player; not only has he developed as an openside flank who competes strongly for the ball at the breakdown, but he’s a strong ball-carrier, despite not necessarily being the biggest flanker around. He has that explosiveness and X factor, which really makes him a special player.’

However, with the likes of Francois Louw, Coetzee, Brüssow and Siya Kolisi providing options at openside flank at national level, Kriel found himself unable to break into the Bok squad despite his red-hot Super Rugby form. Yet the Boks’ loss would be the Lions’ gain as Kriel turned his attention to the Currie Cup, where he made another indelible impression.

Again Kriel emerged at the top in terms of defenders beaten and turnovers won, while scoring six tries. He also made a further contribution as the Lions’ influential captain – taking over the reins from Super Rugby skipper and Bok squad member Warren Whiteley.

‘It was an easy decision to appoint Jaco as captain,’ says Ackermann. ‘In terms of his character and approach to the game, I saw a number of similarities between him and Warren. He grew into the role, and although Jaco might not be the most outspoken captain, his actions on and off the field spoke for themselves.’

Having observed the Lions from afar before rejoining them towards the end of their Currie Cup campaign, Whiteley says he was impressed by how Kriel led the team through their Currie Cup campaign.

‘I remember when I was at the Boks, and I was watching some of the Lions’ performances, I could see how Jaco led from the front. I gave him a call before his first game as captain and told him, it’s not about what you say as captain, it’s about what you do. He’s done that; he’s led from the front, put his body on the line every week and really made an impact in the crucial moments.

‘He’s only going to get better,’ Whiteley adds. ‘I think the best is still to come for Jaco – I see him as a Springbok in the near future. He’s a player who is constantly improving; I’m very proud of him and what he’s achieved.’

Kriel certainly ended last year with a number of accolades to show for his achievements, having been named the Lions Player of the Year, Players’ Player of the Year and the Supporters’ Player of the Year. He also earned Saru nominations in the categories of SA Player of the Year, Super Rugby Player of the Year and Currie Cup Player of the Year.

It’s understandable then that Kriel will enter this season with some extra expectation, but by all accounts his intention is to start this year with a clean slate and a renewed focus. It’s one of the reasons Kriel has been shielded from the media before this Super Rugby season, with the humble 26-year-old wary of reading too much into the hype that has begun to follow his explosive performances.

‘Obviously Jaco is a very important player for us this year, but I think he must just press the reset button,’ Ackermann says. ‘A new year brings new challenges; there is going to be a new Bok coach and then there are numerous talented loose forwards who will provide healthy competition. So it’s really important to start afresh and for Jaco to ensure he keeps working at his game.’

Another season like the last, though, and the new Bok coach surely won’t be able to resist Kriel’s claims for a Test cap for much longer.

– This article first appeared in the March 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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