Jesse Kriel has made an impressive start to his Test career, writes RYAN VREDE.
Jesse Kriel has had a better year than most 21-year-olds.
Last year the highlight of his career was playing in the Junior World Championship, a tournament in which he caught the eye. Now he is a Springbok, a World Cup one no less, his elevation coming off the back of a series of strong performances in an unfamiliar position.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has built a reputation for being overly generous when asked for his estimation of players, but he has been speaking to me about Kriel since the kid was a schoolboy and has always done so in glowing terms.
‘I’ve worked with Jesse before as a junior and I played a part in him joining the Bulls after school. He has great speed and his acceleration off the mark can be a big threat in attack. He has the potential to be the best outside centre South Africa has produced,’ Meyer told the media.
The coach isn’t only paying lip service, it is merely a continuation of what he has privately suspected for many years. I say ‘suspected’ because Meyer knew Kriel’s talent alone wouldn’t ensure he cut it at Test level. So he picked him to play Test rugby in what was as much an examination of that talent as it was one of his mettle.
Having one without the other makes for a very short international career and Meyer has been forced to accept that this has been the case for some youngsters he had high hopes for, only to see them be exposed as lacking the requisite mix of talent and temperament.
And as if Test rugby wasn’t already an incredibly unforgiving environment for young turks, Meyer also deployed Kriel at outside centre, a position the coach believes is his best.
It is also one that demands the highest level of defensive competence, an aspect Kriel readily admits he’s still working on mastering.
Meyer first intervened in Kriel’s positional future when he discussed the shift with Junior Bok coach Dawie Theron, who agreed to trial him there. The move worked well and reinforced Meyer’s belief that Kriel could be more effective at outside centre than at fullback, where he played for the Bulls in his rookie Super Rugby season.
Kriel showed enough on the technical and mental fronts in the Rugby Championship to book himself a place in Meyer’s World Cup squad. His performances there were in keeping with those of talented youngsters of his ilk in the infancy of their international career. Indeed, his attacking performance against New Zealand was exciting, offering credibility to Meyer’s aforementioned assertion.
‘The All Blacks are always going to be the benchmark for the Springboks as a team and individuals within that team,’ Kriel begins. ‘I thought I did well on attack against them, which gave me a lot of confidence. Defensively, I didn’t think I did too badly. I’m learning all the time. [Defence coach] John McFarland and some of the senior players are helping me a lot with it. I feel the more I play and train in that position, the better I get defensively.’
Kriel’s mindset going into the Ellis Park Test should also be encouraging to Springbok fans.
‘I was a bit nervous, but it was positive energy,’ he says. ‘I had no fear. Of course I respect the All Blacks. They are the world champions, but I was more excited by the challenge than I was scared of it. Part of the reason for that is I played in the Junior Bok teams that beat the Baby Blacks. So the All Blacks weren’t as intimidating for me as they may have been for guys who didn’t have a history of success against a New Zealand side. Perhaps I’m being a little naive but that’s how I feel about it.
‘There are young players coming through, like Handré Pollard and Jan Serfontein, who know what it’s like to win against New Zealand’s best youngsters, so we’re confident of doing it again at senior level. I know the Boks’ record against the All Blacks isn’t great, but hopefully we can play a role in changing that in the years to come.’
And when it comes to assessing Kriel, the years to come should be of more interest for the South African rugby fraternity than what he does or doesn’t do at the World Cup. He may well pull a Frans Steyn and light up the global showpiece at his first crack, announcing his arrival as a pre-eminent talent. More likely, though, he will take a while to settle, growing in consistency and potency with experience.
‘I know the responsibility lies with me if I want to have the type of Test career I dream of,’ Kriel says. ‘I can’t blame anyone if things don’t work out because I’ve been given the opportunities and a lot of time and skills investment from the coaching staff. I always know where I stand with the coach and that’s very important for a player.
‘Honestly, I lack for nothing, so I can’t complain if it doesn’t work out for me. I have to put in the hard yards and take as much from the senior guys as I can before they move on.’
Those ‘senior guys’ have included the World Cup-winning midfield partnership of Jaque Fourie and Jean de Villiers.
‘They have been really good to me in terms of sharing their knowledge and helping me technically,’ Kriel says. ‘Jean, especially, has been terrific. He’s a great guy.
‘The step up from Super Rugby to Test level is big in terms of the space and time you have on attack. Defensively you need to make decisions quickly under pressure and then execute accurately. Jean also offers great advice to me for things outside rugby. Living a good, balanced life and so on, which I’ve appreciated.’
Outside centre has been a problem area for Meyer. A number of players have been tried with none making a play for permanent occupancy. In Kriel the Bokshave a potential solution, and in the dynamic and gifted Damian de Allende, a combination that captures the imagination.
‘Damian and I love playing together. We share similar philosophies about how we want to play – ball-in-hand, attacking stuff,’ Kriel says. ‘I think we’re starting to get a good groove and that will only get better the more we play together. We’re also very good mates off the field, which has benefits on the field of play.
‘I hope we can become one of the best Bok midfield pairings, but that may be presumptuous. We both know that if we don’t continue to grow, learn and improve, our Test careers can end.’
There is a disconcerting recent history of young players like Kriel, laden with talent and potential, not breaking through like they were expected to. There are a myriad reasons for this, and time will reveal Kriel’s staying power, or lack thereof. There’s something about him, though. Something that makes you believe.
KRIEL ON …
THE SPRINGBOK TEAM CULTURE
‘The first time I was selected I didn’t know what to expect in terms of being accepted by the other players. However, I found all the guys to be very welcoming and encouraging. The coaches don’t treat the young guys any differently to the senior boys, and neither do they expect special treatment. Everyone is professional. The culture is one that gives you the best chance to succeed.’
THE WORLD CUP
‘The ultimate goal is to win it, but leading into the tournament the opening game was all we focused on. We deal with the games as they come up. Thinking too far ahead has the potential to be a bad mistake. The preparation couldn’t have been any better and we believe we have the squad to win the tournament. It’s still surreal for me to be playing at the World Cup, considering that a year ago I was playing for the Junior Boks.’
HIS POSITIONAL FUTURE AT THE BULLS
‘I’m honestly not too bothered about not playing at centre for the Bulls. I’ll play wherever they need me, at this point in my career. I can see how it would benefit my Test career by playing there, but I’d like to think I can adapt to whatever challenge I face.’
– This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine