Bulls fullback Jesse Kriel always backs himself to have a go, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
It took just one passage of play during the Bulls’ match against the Hurricanes at Loftus in February to show why Jesse Kriel should be his side’s first-choice fullback. Kriel, who had turned 21 five days earlier, collected Beauden Barrett’s restart 10m out from the Bulls’ tryline. Everyone – his teammates, the opposition and the 11 774 spectators – expected him to kick. Instead, he stepped off his right foot to get past Julian Savea and then brushed off the tackle of Ben Franks, before finally being brought to ground on the Hurricanes’ 10m line. Ten phases later, Kriel’s housemate, Handré Pollard, scored a try under the crossbar.
Kriel would go on to finish the match, his first Super Rugby start after two appearances as a replacement, with 111 running metres, nine carries, two clean breaks, three defenders beaten and just one kick from hand.
‘I was a little bit disappointed to start the Super Rugby season on the bench, but I knew [Bulls coach] Frans Ludeke had a plan for me and that I would feature in the tournament,’ says Kriel. ‘I was given the No 15 jersey for our second match against the Hurricanes and while I was disappointed we lost, I was pleased with my performance.
‘When I caught the ball from that restart, kicking it never crossed my mind. I just ran, it was pure instinct. I saw a little bit of space, because Savea had rushed up, so I stepped to the left of him and just went.’
The last time SA Rugby magazine sat down with Kriel, he had just returned from the Junior World Championship, where South Africa had beaten hosts New Zealand twice, before losing by a point to England in the final.
He said his next goal was to play for the Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup, but ended up making his Super Rugby debut off the bench in the Bulls’ last match of the tournament against the Rebels at Loftus. He only got 16 minutes and touched the ball once, but was happy to earn that first cap. Kriel then played nine matches during last year’s Currie Cup, although he made just three starts, all at fullback.
‘I was hoping to get more game time,’ he admits. ‘I felt I was ready to play senior rugby. I was on the bench for the first two matches, but started the game against the Kings and I thought I did well. I also started against Western Province and the Sharks.’
However, it was Ulrich Beyers who wore the No 15 jersey for the semi-final against Western Province at Newlands, a match the Bulls lost 31-23, with Kriel coming on in the 61st minute to play outside centre. When Beyers joined French club Bordeaux in early February, Kriel would have expected to start for the Bulls in their opening Super Rugby match against the Stormers at Loftus, but Ludeke opted for the more experienced Jürgen Visser.
Visser, though, had a disappointing game, with his failure to claim a high ball gifting the Stormers their first try and ending the Bulls’ early period of dominance. The hosts went on to lose 29-17 and Kriel was brought in at fullback for their next match against the Hurricanes in the only change to the backline. He took his opportunity with both hands, and at the time of writing had started every game since.
Bulls backline coach Pieter Rossouw and his Springbok counterpart Ricardo Loubscher have been impressed by the youngster’s performances.
‘Jesse has really made the step up to Super Rugby and performed well,’ says Rossouw. ‘He has great attacking abilities – he’s a good runner and stepper – and has improved his decision-making when it comes to running or kicking. He has also improved his kicking a lot since last year, but can still get better when it comes to kicking contestable balls in the air and for the line.’
‘He is a special player and has added a new dimension to the Bulls backline,’ adds Loubscher. ‘He made an impressive start to Super Rugby this year, as his stats for clean breaks and metres made with ball in hand show. He’s made a big difference to the Bulls from a counter-attacking point of view, in terms of taking the defence on and creating opportunities. The break he made against the Hurricanes is a good example of that. He’s also been good under the high ball and makes his one-on-one tackles, which is important as the fullback is the last line of defence.’
Kriel says his strengths are with ball in hand.
‘I really like to attack and counter-attack, which I get the opportunity to do from fullback. The Bulls have told me to back myself and play what’s in front of me, which I’m very happy about. There is a structure or framework that we work within, but we are given the freedom to express ourselves. It all comes down to making better decisions, and the more you play and the more experience you gain, the better decisions you will make.’
Kriel played fullback for KwaZulu-Natal at Craven Week and SA Schools, but started at outside centre for the Junior Boks last year. Now he’s returned to 15 and looks set to stay there for the foreseeable future.
‘Fullback is definitely his best position and he provides good backup for us at outside centre,’ says Rossouw. ‘It’s good to have a versatile player like that.’
Kriel’s strong early-season form has created speculation that he could be called up to the Springbok squad this year as a backup to Willie le Roux. He trained with the Boks a couple of times last year and is highly rated by Heyneke Meyer.
‘I want to go to the World Cup,’ says Kriel. ‘If you’re a professional South African rugby player and you’re not aiming to go, you’re not playing rugby for the right reasons. I’m working hard towards achieving that goal.’
Rossouw and Loubscher believe Kriel could go on to wear the green and gold this season.
‘He will be in contention for the Springbok World Cup squad if he carries on playing like he is,’ says Rossouw. ‘The only thing that counts against him is that he has not yet played Test rugby and the Boks don’t have a lot of Tests before the World Cup. But if the Bulls can get to the Super Rugby play-offs and he does well in those pressure games, it would show Heyneke that he could deal with the pressure of a World Cup match.’
‘He definitely has the right skills to play for the Springboks – he’s strong and powerful,’ adds Loubscher. ‘In terms of his personality, he’s composed and measured, which is what you would expect from an international player. But for now, he just needs to keep his head down, work hard and put his hand up for selection, week in and week out.’
1,011 – The number of running metres Kriel had made after 14 rounds of Super Rugby (only Israel Folau, with 1,193, had more)
KRIEL ON …
HIS FAVOURITE POSITION
‘I enjoyed playing outside centre at the Junior World Championship, and am enjoying fullback at the moment. These days, you’ve got to be able to play more than one position, and I’m happy to play anywhere as long as I’m on the field.’
VICTOR MATFIELD’S INFLUENCE
‘I’ve learned a lot from Victor at the Bulls. He’s a guy I look up to and one of my rugby role models. He has an awesome rugby brain and his work ethic is something I try to emulate.’
HIS HOUSEMATE HANDRÉ POLLARD
‘I’ve chatted a lot with Handré [below] about what it’s like to play for the Boks. I’m very proud of the guy; he’s done so well. He says it’s the best thing that’s happened to him and that pulling on the jersey is an indescribable feeling. I want to experience that. I want to play alongside the best in the country.’
– This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine