Having finally received his Springbok cap in June, Jaco Kriel wants to get more game time during the Rugby Championship, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Kriel could barely contain his elation. When fronting up to the media after making his Springbok debut in the third Test against Ireland in June, it was clear that adrenaline was still coursing through the loose forward’s veins as he recounted his 20-minute cameo.
‘When we were chatting in the change room afterwards and I tried to think about the game, I could hardly remember what I did on the field. I realised then how quickly it flies by,’ he enthused. ‘It was such an amazing experience to fight it out like that alongside my brothers … those 20 minutes were the best of my life.’
At 26, Kriel had to bide his time to finally receive Test honours. In 2014, he was included in the Springbok squad for their end-of-year tour to the UK, but failed to get any game time. And despite another impressive Super Rugby season in 2015, Kriel remained on the fringes of the Springbok set-up.
Having been deemed surplus to World Cup requirements, he turned his attention to leading the Lions through an unbeaten Currie Cup campaign. He was subsequently named the Lions Player of the Year, Players’ Player of the Year and the Supporters’ Player of the Year. He also won the SA Currie Cup Player of the Year award and was nominated for SA Player of the Year and SA Super Rugby Player of the Year.
It served as further recognition for the dynamic flanker, whose fans continued to clamour for his Springbok inclusion. Those clamours only grew louder during another sequence of irrepressible performances in Super Rugby this year, with Kriel offering a threat as a ball-carrier, powerful defender and breakdown ball-stealer.
Finally, his form proved to be simply too good to ignore. In June, Allister Coetzee answered the call to include Kriel in his plans for the new Test season, but the Lions star again had to display a degree of patience before earninga place in the match 23 for the third Test against Ireland.
In the end, though, Kriel tells SA Rugby magazine the wait was worth the reward.
‘It was an unbelievable experience to achieve the goal I’ve had for such a long time. I just want to cherish every situation and opportunity in that jersey because you never know when it might be your last.’
During Kriel’s Test debut cameo, he made five tackles and executed one vital turnover as the Springboks held on to clinch a series victory, with that first taste of Test rugby fuelling a hunger for more.
‘Having that little experience only makes you want more and motivates you to keep working harder and to be better at what you do,’ he says. ‘I’m really motivated to get more game time with the Boks and I’m determined to do whatever it takes to get it.’
With this in mind, Kriel has set his sights on specialising as an openside flanker in order to add long-term value to the Springbok set-up.
‘I want to focus on the No 6 role. I love to carry the ball, but I want to specialise as a fetcher and keep developing my game when it comes to slowing the opposition ball down. I need to put in the extra work on my breakdown drills and ensure I keep improving in that regard. I think ball-carrying is one of my strengths, but I also believe you can always work on other aspects of your game, such as defence and stealing at the breakdown.’
Despite the fact Kriel is not one of the biggest loose forwards around (1.84m, 100kg), Coetzee said he had no doubt about the value the stocky flanker could add to the Bok cause.
‘Jaco is a very exciting and explosive player, who is also a bit like an openside flank and blindside flank all in one. We will benefit from his pace, impact and work rate across the field. He doesn’t have to do anything differently, and he’s got the freedom to play within our structures.’
Interestingly, Kriel played at scrumhalf and flyhalf during his early high school days at Standerton in Mpumalanga, but he was encouraged to make the move to flank by one of his coaches, and it’s proved to be a masterstroke.
After representing the Pumas at the 2007 Craven Week, Kriel was given the opportunity tojoin the junior ranks of theLions the year after and quickly made a name for himself when he was named their U19 Player of the Year.
Although he admits he experienced a couple of difficult years at U21 level as he looked to break into the senior set-up, it never dulled his passion to progress to greater heights.
‘I played a lot of Vodacom Cup rugby under coach Russell Winter; he always backed me and told me to keep going. I’ll always be grateful for his support. In 2010 I broke through to play Currie Cup and then made my Super Rugby debut in 2011.’
Since then, Kriel has played a central role in the Lions’ journey from Super Rugby relegation in 2013 to runners-up just three years later.
‘That was a very difficult year for us [in 2013], especially for those players left behind because a lot of seniors left or were loaned out at the time,’ he says. ‘We weren’t sure of our futures and we just had to stick together and trust in the people who were backing us. We had to build a new team and culture, but we were determined to keep going and working hard. As a group of players, that time builta lot of character in the team.’
During this period, Lions coach Johan Ackermann identified Kriel as one of the players he believed could help take the team forward and complement an ambitious ball-in-hand style of play that was envisaged for the Johannesburg-based side.
With his explosive pace and natural feel for the game, he has certainly proved to be one of the key figures in the Lions’ remarkable revolution over the past three years.
And after waiting for some time before finally earning his first Bok cap, Kriel’s infectious energy could finally take centre stage on the Test arena.
It’s a thrilling prospect that is long overdue.
KRIEL ON …
HIS ROLE AS A LEADER AND SENIOR PLAYER AT THE LIONS
‘It’s been important for me to make a contribution as a senior member of the squad. I’ve been through thick and thin at the Lions, and I really enjoy playing a role as a leader and working together with Warren [Whiteley].’
CAPTAINING THE LIONS TO CURRIE CUP SUCCESS IN 2015
‘Coach Ackies aided my development by making me captain in the Currie Cup, and without that experience I wouldn’t be where I am now. I’ve now had a taste of that captaincy role, and it’s a real honour and privilege to lead this Lions side because you know they’ll always work hard for you.’
THE FAMILY CULTURE AT THE LIONS
‘The team has been together for some time and it plays a big role because we have an understanding on and off the field. There’s a real brotherhood among us. We are a close-knit group and there is a bond between the coaches and players. There’s an open-door policy and if you have any ideas or there’s anything you want to share, you’re welcome to do it. It’s an important working relationship and I think it’s founded on respect between us all.’
THE LIONS’ STYLE OF PLAY
‘It was important to get the balance right between running the ball and kicking, and playing in the right areas of the field, while taking opportunities when they arose. I feel our decision-makers have improved over the past couple of years and that’s been key to our brand of rugby.’
– This article first appeared in the September 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine