Kriel’s a game changer

Jaco Kriel’s game-breaking ability makes him a unique prospect among South Africa’s openside contenders, writes BRENTON CHELIN.

Arguably the best performance by a South African team last year came in the Currie Cup semi-finals, as the Lions savaged the Sharks 50-20 to book their place in the Newlands showpiece. As they had done to the Cheetahs in the final round of Super Rugby, the Lions absolutely decimated the Sharks up front, allowing their dynamic loose trio free rein of the Ellis Park pitch.

It was on the back of this dominance that Jaco Kriel was able to express himself – scoring one try and creating another. The try – his ninth of the Currie Cup season – showed what he is capable of when provided the platform by a dominant pack. Receiving the ball in his own half, Kriel raced clear, deceiving Kyle Cooper with a clever dummy before outstripping Tonderai Chavhanga, who is no slouch, on the outside. By the time Kriel limped off just before half-time with a hamstring strain, the damage had been done.

This was just one of a number of sparkling displays by the tearaway flanker during the Currie Cup. Kriel led the way in linebreaks, defenders beaten and tries scored – an indication of how influential he was in the Lions’ run to the final. His work at the breakdown – the primary requirement for openside consideration – was also unsurpassed, as he finished the season with more turnovers than his contemporaries. In fact, during Super Rugby Marcell Coetzee was the only South African player to secure more turnover ball.

Players of Kriel’s ilk are rare. Among his offensive repertoire is his explosive ball-carrying, impeccable timing and his ability to play the game as he sees it. The latter is a rare commodity among South African forwards.

‘He is a coach’s dream, the one player who can run like a back, make a difference on the ground and always tends to be in the right place when his team needs him,’ said coach Johan Ackermann before that semi-final.

South African coaches have shown a tendency to focus solely on certain aspects of a particular role, and by doing so they miss the bigger picture. Kriel is an undoubted talent – that much is clear. But where does he fit in the rigid structures that inhibit South African coaching philosophies? That is where the lines become blurred.

Kriel, along with South African rugby, has benefited from the goings-on at Ellis Park. A renaissance is under way in the big smoke, where the future is looking brighter than it has for some time. When Ackermann took over as Lions coach before the 2013 season after a tumultuous period under John Mitchell, he took stock of the players at his disposal. There was a motley crew consisting of discards from other unions and young upstarts still finding their way in the game. Ackermann cast off the constraints of the Mitchell era and embraced a new philosophy, one that prioritised freedom of expression and an open family environment. Among the players he inherited was Kriel, who had been with the Lions since the conclusion of his schooling.

A former head boy at Standerton High School in Mpumalanga, Kriel may have played for the Pumas at Craven Week but he was a Lion at heart. When handed the opportunity to pursue his rugby further at either Loftus or Ellis Park, there was only ever going to be one outcome.

‘I have always been a Lions supporter,’ admits Kriel. ‘At  Craven Week the Bulls and the Lions approached me. But after sitting down with my dad, I made the decision to go to the Lions.’

Kriel’s progression through the ranks was steady, but his body held him back. As any irrepressible young player will tell you, he wanted to play as much as possible. However, niggling injuries slowed his development, and it wasn’t until Michael Rhodes and Josh Strauss’s departure after the 2011 Currie Cup success that Kriel would get regular game time. The following year saw the Lions cast into Super Rugby exile as the Kings got their day in the sun, but Ackermann’s arrival and overhaul of the Lions game plan has seen a turnaround in fortunes, for the team and for Kriel.

The confidence garnered from the freedom afforded to him has been reflected in his play, culminating in his performance against the Sharks. While he was unable to reproduce that form in the final, Kriel has shown enough to suggest he is capable of achieving higher honours. Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer seems to be in agreement. What remains to be seen, however, is how Meyer intends to use Kriel’s particular skill set.

Selected as part of a 36-man squad, Kriel failed to make it on to the field during the end-of-year tour. While there were some who questioned Meyer’s decision to take such a bloated touring party, it proved a valuable exercise for Kriel and the Bok coaches. Johann van Graan, the Springbok forwards coach, was afforded a rare opportunity to work with Kriel on a closer level, allowing for a greater understanding of the player.

‘You learn much more from working with players on a daily basis than seeing what they can do on TV or even in a match environment. Jaco is a very hard worker with superb skills and just another one of the possible stars we have at loose forward. He also has a natural feeling for the game, which is something you can’t really coach – he always seems to pitch up at the right places on the field, which is a great quality for an opensider.’

The structured approach of the Boks took some getting used to for Kriel, especially after the freedom he’s experienced at the Lions.

‘It was difficult for me in the beginning. But the more you train with the Springboks, the more you realise there are still opportunities to express yourself within the structure.’

With a successful year under his belt, Kriel will be expected to kick on during the Super Rugby season, but he is under no illusions as to the task at hand.

‘I can’t compare Super Rugby to Currie Cup. Super Rugby is a completely different competition – it’s the next level. It’s a fast, tougher game and you play against the best in the world. Touring with the Boks showed me how much work I still have to put in to be competitive at international level. I’ve got a long way to go.’

Kriel remains a work in progress, much like his Super Rugby franchise, but on the evidence of 2014, both are coming along quite well. They have shown that there remains a place in South African rugby for the mavericks, the misfits, the ones who see things a bit differently. And that when given the opportunity to think for themselves, they might just come up with the right answer.


‘He will never hold things against you, if you do something wrong or if you try something. I’m encouraged to go for things on the field and to play the game as I see it, not necessarily stick to structures. He’s been great for the development of my game.’

‘I think over the past couple of years I’ve focused too much on my ball-carrying and not enough on my breakdown work, especially in Super Rugby, where defence is so vital. Working with [Bok breakdown specialist] Richie Gray was a big help; he provided input on a number of skills required in that area.’

‘I told myself it was enough of a privilege to just tour with the Boks. But as the tour progressed I realised how desperate I was just to get on the field and I’ll use that as motivation.’

– This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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