Jaco Kriel has finally arrived in the Test arena. At least I bloody hope so after his last two Test performances!
Kriel’s form and his reward is also an example to every South African player that if the national jersey means that much to you and you are good enough you will get to wear it on your terms.
If a player had reason to say ‘stuff it’ and cash in on the lucrative European club scene it was Kriel.
Few would have held it against him if he had turned his back on his Springbok aspirations given how much he gave in performance and how little he got in return.
Kriel was the form loose forward in South African Super Rugby but never got a look in to the 2015 Springbok World Cup squad. The disappointment didn’t hamper his domestic form and he sizzled in all South African competitions pre and post the World Cup.
Kriel was not deterred by not being rated nationally. He kept believing in South African and Springbok rugby.
He spoke with passion and enthusiasm about the Lions and Springboks. He wanted to win Super Rugby with the Lions and he wanted to play Test rugby for South Africa.
Kriel has always impressed with his passion for the game and his passion for being a South African rugby player.
He did all the right things on the field and his personality only made his case for selection stronger.
But in 2016 there was still resistance to his Test ambitions.
A new national coach didn’t change the situation. Kriel, again the dominant South African loose-forward in Super Rugby, was again secondary in Bok selection. He was used sparingly, from the bench in the Irish Test series, and his response was to go back to the Lions and play even better in Super Rugby.
Injury forced him out of the Springboks’ nightmare tour of Europe at the end of 2016 but his early form in this year’s Super Rugby was sensational.
Then injury struck midway through Super Rugby and he again was not considered a starting option for the Springboks’ 2017 season opener against France.
Kriel first toured with the Springboks in 2014 but for the last three years has been the nearly man of the Springboks. There always seemed to be another option, another loose-forward combination or another reason why Kriel was not starting for the Springboks.
The Lions captain’s Currie Cup and Super Rugby form has since 2014 consistently been of the highest quality. The only time Kriel is quiet in performance is when he is actually injured. He missed a good month of Super Rugby in the build-up to the French series and it seemed that the injury curse would add substance to those opinions that have never favoured Kriel’s potency as a Test flank.
But in an irony it was injury to provincial and national team-mate Warren Whiteley and flank Oupa Mohoje that opened the door to Kriel to finally get a starting role for the Springboks.
Mohoje got concussed in the second Test against the French and Whiteley was a late withdrawal on the eve of the third Test against the Les Bleus at Ellis Park.
Kriel got to start in Johannesburg and was the pick of the Springbok forwards. He carried that form into the Super Rugby play-offs. He was inspirational as a leader in the absence of Whiteley and he has been as much a presence in his play.
A few years ago I likened Kriel’s presence in the Lions to that of Richie McCaw in the All Blacks and Crusaders. Kriel’s work rate mirrored all the qualities that made McCaw the best. Kriel also had magnetism as a leader. His players responded to the way he played. He led with deed more than word. The calm he projected for the Lions was in contrast to the frenetic pace at which he played the game.
Kriel, like McCaw his entire career, is active on the ball and always involved in the game. If it’s not a carry, a pass or a tackle, then he’s slowing the ball down or forcing the turnover. He thrives on pressure and on being involved.
Kriel, in South African rugby, was very similar to Duane Vermeulen when it came to the transition from Super Rugby player to Test player. It took Vermeulen several years to convince a Springbok coach he was born to play Test rugby. Vermeulen would be magnificent in domestic and Super Rugby but other No 8s were preferred.
Once Vermeulen finally got a chance to start at No 8 for the Springboks it was hard to imagine him not being there. I feel the same about Kriel.
I love his passion for the game of rugby and for his belief in South African rugby.
I love how he has risen above every disappointment in selection and done his talking for the Lions through performance. He is an inspiration and a reminder that the best players find a way to triumph.
There is so much to admire about the developing culture of the 2017 Springboks and Kriel is at the forefront of this culture. Long may it last; long may he last.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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