- Jaco Kriel won't be playing the full 80 minutes but Italian outfit Zebre should steel themselves for a short, intense shift by the Lions' bustling flanker.
- The 32-year-old hasn't been seen much since returning to Ellis Park in 2020 though the franchise is now hopeful he can spearhead a competitive United Rugby Championship campaign.
- Head coach Ivan van Rooyen says Kriel's positive influence has been a feature of their build-up to the tournament.
He definitely won't be seen for the full 80 minutes, but Zebre should steel themselves for a potential Jaco Kriel tsunami when the Italians kick-off the new United Rugby Championship (URC) against the Lions in Parma on Friday evening.
The 32-year-old, 11-cap Springbok is finally back in action for the Ellis Park-based franchise for the first time since late January after ankle and knee injuries, as well as Covid-19 protocols saw him spend ages on the sidelines.
It's because of those niggles that he won't be spearheading a hunt for more than one half though head coach, Ivan van Rooyen, is excited to unleash him.
"It's good to have Jaco back obviously," he said.
"We'll probably pull him out after about 40 to 50 minutes. It's no use breaking him in the first game by pushing him all the way and not having him available afterwards. The knees and ankles need a bit of oil first."
Given the negative sentiment surrounding the team after a poor Currie Cup campaign as well as doubts over the immediate ability of Van Rooyen's new assistants - Ricardo Loubscher, Jaque Fourie and Albert van den Berg - to help turn things around, the Lions desperately require the positive vibes provided by Kriel.
The bustling flanker is considered a franchise legend, a member of the 2016-2018 vintage that reached three consecutive Super Rugby finals while also leading the team in the 2017 showpiece.
Kriel was also the Currie Cup-winning skipper of 2015.
Van Rooyen was quick to point out the renewed influence of his experienced stalwart.
"To integrate him again is valuable for us. He brings leadership, calmness and direction to our squad," he said.
"You could feel the influence. The Jaco Kriel of old is back. Just having him part of the team again is an honour.
"He's bubbly, jumping around in team sessions. He's such a positive presence."
Nine years his junior but no less influential, Wandisile Simelane is expected to help unlock a talented backline with his newfound experience after spending several weeks in the Springbok camp for the British & Irish Lions series.
But his skipper and midfield partner, Burger Odendaal, doesn't want to place too much pressure on the gifted 23-year-old.
"It's just exciting to get the first game underway. We don't want to just focus on Wandi," he said.
"But playing alongside him is great. He's a special player and hopefully he can exploit the Zebre defence and put a lot of guys around him into space.
"A few tries would be welcome too."
Kick-off is at 18:35 on Friday.
15 Junior Laloifi, 14 Pierre Bruno, 13 Giulio Bisegni, 12 Tommaso Boni, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 Renato Giammarioli, 7 Iacopo Bianchi, 6 Maxime Mbanda, 5 Leonard Krumov, 4 David Sisi, 3 Matteo Nocera, 2 Luca Bigi, 1 Danilo Fischetti
Substitutes: 16 Oliviere Fabiani, 17 Andrea Lovotti, 18 Ion Neculai, 19 Andrea Zambonin, 20 Giovanni Licata, 21 Alessando Fusco, 22 Antonio Rizzi, 23 Jacopo Trulla
15 EW Viljoen, 14 Jamba Ulengo, 13 Wandisile Simelane, 12 Burger Odendaal (captain), 11 Rabz Maxwane, 10 Jordan Hendrikse, 9 Andre Warner, 8 Francke Horn, 7 Vince Tshituka, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Pieter Jansen van Vuren, 4 Ruben Schoeman, 3 Carlu Sadie, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Ruan Dreyer
Substitutes: 16 PJ Botha, 17 Sti Sithole, 18 Asenathi Ntlabakanye, 19 Reinhard Nothnagel, 20 Sibusiso Sangweni, 21 Morne van den Berg, 22 Eddie Fouche, 23 Divan Rossouw