Where’s Jesse?

Simnikiwe Xabanisa

Former Springbok prop Os du Randt once said the best way for a player to find himself a spot on the bench was to be considered versatile.

It’s a sentiment that will resonate with Bok centre-cum-fullback Jesse Kriel as he starts the Blue Bulls’ Currie Cup clash against the Sharks while his teammates prepare to face Argentina in the Rugby Championship on Saturday.

Kriel was the starting outside centre in the Boks’ narrow World Cup semi-final defeat to the All Blacks in 2015, a position he held on to under Allister Coetzee over the last two years en route to amassing his 32 international caps.

The last two starts were under new Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus in this year’s defeats to Wales and England. Those games were lost partially because the Boks clearly fielded their second-string side, which would officially make Kriel a dirt-tracker.

The irony is that 2018 has been Kriel’s best season since 2015, the year he announced himself on the international stage with that bustling, low-slung running style of his. While his happy knack for elbowing his way onto the try scorers’ list and reportedly being a popular team man in the Bok setup kept him in the starting line-up, his early struggles in the outside centre role were obvious.

He crabbed his outside runners out of space, passed like someone whose muscular physique meant he’d never had to pass before and read the defence in that 13 channel as if it was written in braille. But under John Mitchell he tightened up on some of those deficiencies, with an often used grubber indicating he sometimes had flashes of appreciation for space.

The starting outside centre for the Boks this year is the Sharks’ Lukhanyo Am, whose main advantage over Kriel is that he is as good and as smart a rugby player as the former Maritzburg College pupil is a great athlete.

With Am’s game sense making him the nearest thing anyone has internationally to a Conrad Smith, Lionel Mapoe’s sudden return as the number two in that position is a clearer indication of how far down the pecking order Kriel has fallen.

After his flattest year for the Lions, Mapoe can’t be said to have overtaken Kriel with anything he did on the field. But because he has never been given a fair shot by past Bok coaches, while Kriel was there despite not being the best outside centre in the country, it makes sense that Erasmus wants to see what he’s actually got.

Erasmus has also made the right noises about Kriel getting a chance during the Rugby Championship, but the fact that a utility back can’t find a place in his extended squad – especially where there’s no natural backup fullback – speaks volumes.

A few factors have contributed in the uber-dedicated Kriel finding himself where he is: Heyneke Meyer’s decision to turn him into a 13, the player’s refusal to accept a Blitzboks call-up a few years back and our coaches’ obsession with intangibles when it comes to certain players.

What started as a promising experiment in the 2015 Rugby Championship – Kriel couldn’t stop scoring electric tries – now looks like a case of Meyer trying to find a former child prodigy a place in his starting line-up at all costs, instead of easing him into international rugby.

Also, who knows where Kriel would be now if he’d stayed at fullback?

Kriel himself turned down an opportunity for a rugby education by opting to play club rugby in Japan instead of accepting an invitation from the national sevens team at the end of 2015, which may have helped with his struggle with spatial awareness.

And because Kriel is a dedicated professional with a great attitude, coaches have often yielded to the desire to reward those qualities with a place in the team without considering what he brings to the side (think Andries Coetzee with the Boks under Coetzee).

At just 24, it’ll be interesting to see how Erasmus goes about teasing out the blockbuster qualities that made Kriel such a precocious talent at school: does he persist with him at 13 or move him to fullback or wing?

Currently, he’s not even on Os du Randt’s hated bench.

- Simnikiwe Xabanisa

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  • boyo

    I don’t think many people consider Kriel as anything except an outside center nowadays. That is like saying jaque Fourie was a utility player option because he started out his pro career playing 15.

    Kriel is a very good player and he is getting even better but then so is AM and it helps that AM is used to Estherhuisen and Mapimpi. Jesse will get his chance and we will have two good quality 13’s available for the next two world cups which is a good place to be.

  • Randell Ford

    Turning down an opportunity in Japan. The Kriel has values.

  • Chris Mouton

    This article is short-sighted in my opinion. It’s pretty obvious that Rassie wants to test Am and Mapoe and give them decent chances. They’re also getting valuable experience. He knows what he has in Kriel and Kriel has a lot of experience. Kriel hasn’t played 15 in years, so I don’t consider him a 15 at all. And wing? Would you really rate him above the wings we have at the moment? The reason for releasing Kriel for his club is so that he can get some gametime and keep sharp. Kriel is not in the wilderness, Rassie just has some vision.

    • Vossie

      Got to agree with you Chris, saying that i believe AM’s distribution is better than Kriel’s however Kriel has more pace to beat defenders on the outside. Rassie likes AM because he’s a Conrad Smith type of player who can free up his arms and get those 50/50 passes away with better distribution qualities. Kriel should make a return to the squad once we reach the S.A leg of the comp!

  • Sharky

    “The starting outside centre for the Boks this year is the Sharks’ Lukhanyo Am, whose main advantage over Kriel is …”.

    You could easily finish that sentence in a non-PC way. And I think it would be naive to think that under the current regime Am’s colour hasn’t helped him along at least a bit. That said, I am a big Am fan and I do believe that he is up there with the best outside centers we have. I am also not the biggest Jesse Kriel fan despite also being a Maritzburg College old boy. So swings and roundabouts…

    But talking about centers, what has happened to Rohan Jansen Van Rensburg. He was on the cusp of a Bok call-up a couple of years back and then nothing.

    • Hopeful

      AM wasn’t the best 13 and yes I agree he got the nod based on political management of the numbers…but….he has taken the chance and run with it…he has a way to go but I’m seeing good things and that’s what chances are all about…Mapoe used to be one of my favorite players, blunt force trauma…in fairness to him he will be back given the time and possibly some clever coaching….Players lose form it’s natural but the really good ones bounce back!!

      Kriel needs to make it impossible to ignore him….that’s his best chance….game for game just killing it….you can’t ignore a player when they are on top form…if he can do that he will take the jersey….or get a ridiculously lucrative offer to France…either way is a win!!

      • redge

        Am run with it,lol, in the wrong direction yes. He won’t even get near a SR contract in NZ or Aus,fact!

    • Mili

      1. He ended that sentence the way it is, there is nothing PC about it. Am is rated by a lot of people as being better than Kriel and few people can complain about him being picked ahead of Kriel. You choose to bring colour into this to discredit how great a player Am is because you simply cannot accept the idea of a player of colour being picked ahead of a white player.

      2. You contradict yourself so much claiming you’re not a Kriel fan and you’re an Am fan and he is “up there with the best in the world” but he is picked in SA because of colour? That’s just silly and sad man.

      3. Rohan has constantly struggled with defense and game management. This was shown up a lot after his injury. For such a big strong guy, he leaks a lot of tries and that was one of the reasons he struggled to hold on to his starting place even at the Lions. He’s a great talent but brawn can only take you so far and overseas supperrugby teams really showed him up.

      4. I agree with Chris, Kriel is our second best outside centre but Rassie hasn’t worked with Mapoe and it’s only fair he finds out what he has or doesn’t have in him. Kriel will definitely be back when we play NZ/AUS.

      • redge

        Shame Mili you don’t want to accept the real problem hey? We are not allowed to select on merit and that why we will never be competitive on a regular basis against the top 5 teams. We select players that might be good enough but not the best. Am and Mapoe is not nearly international level. Both wings cannot tackle. Jantjies is an embarrassment. Beast better that Kitshoff,lol! O yeah and captain Kolisi! Vermeulen,Louw,both du Preezs,Kwagga,Whiteley,Kriel, Coetzee all better loosies than Kolisi only to mention a few. No my friend as long as we select on the base of colour we will fail

      • Sharky

        Dude, your preconceptions are blinding you. Open your eyes and read!

        1. I did not chose to bring colour into this, the ANC did. And there is no way that you can claim that colour has not played a role in AM getting to where he is. I am a Sharks fan and I like Am in the 13 channel for them, but I am also not naive to the “transformation” agenda. “You simply cannot accept the idea of a player of colour being picked ahead of a white player” – what absolute bull! I love Beast (i.e. the one that the ANC said is the wrong shade of black) and the best wings we have at the moment are black. I have no problem acknowledging when black players are better than white players – colour is not an issue I have, it’s an issue that the ANC government has and an issue they have brought into rugby.

        2. Nope, I have not contradicted myself at all. Like I said, “it would be naive to think that under the current regime Am’s colour hasn’t helped him along at least a bit.” I stand by the statement. But at the same time I do think that he is up there with the best we have. Would I pick him ahead of Kriel? 9 time out of 10, yes. As I said, I am more of an Am fan than I am a Kriel fan. Colour is not a factor for me.

        3. I agree. He showed promise and then nothing came of that.

        4. I don’t rate Mapoe at all. I’d rather have Kriel than Mapoe any day of the week. But that’s just my opinion. If Mapoe plays for the Boks and sets the world alight then I’d be ecstatic!

      • Herman Schroder?

        Mili both Kriel have deficiencies. Kriel does not have natural distribution abilities in that he does not understand space and the timing of his passes and the accuracy of the passes are often found wanting. His handling also leaves a lot to be desired. Having come through the Bulls school of conservative rugby it’s not surprising that these skills were not developed properly.

        Am actually finds himself in exactly the same position at the Sharks. Their SR game plan is conservative as well and Am while showing some good qualities is not being brought on properly in that environment. To call him ‘ the nearest thing internationally to Conrad Smith ‘ as the writer of the article is a bit over the top imo. I doubt whether Am would get a look in at SR level never mind Ab level. He also has defensive issues by the way, his performance last Saturday was pretty poor.

        While I agree that RJvR has not been the player he was since his injury he still has superior distribution skills than the other two which was nurtured playing in the Lions ‘total rugby’ environment. Watch his highlight videos on youtube for proof. His new career at Sale Sharks will bring him back very quickly to his best.

        Mapoe has it all imo. Strong, intelligent, good hands, vision, defensively sound and an eye for the gap. He has been polished at the Lions and won’t let you down. Out on the wing last Saturday he earned a 6 /10 in player ratings and that playing in a piss poor Bok team after all. Cheers.

        Both Mapoe and RJvR were devastating at the Lions in 2016 / 7 and hopefully will end up in the mix, heaven knows the Boks need some class. Cheers.

        • redge

          Mapoe and RJVR both useless

        • Greg Shark

          Whaaaat?.….RJvR has been shown up for what he is more often than not….tries to rely on brawn, distribution skills of a Gupta and somewhat flatulent on defence. If you need to get a good look at him don’t look at a intended to be flattering ‘highlights’ u-tube vid, just have a look at his last 3 to 5 games!
          As for Mapoe, he was given many opportunities (nurtured like a baby on the tit) under the last failed coach and proved time and again that he’s very selfish with the ball and gave up many outside scoring opportunities as a result. If you consider Mapoe as strong and intelligent than no doubt Malherbe is a herculean professor, NOT!
          Whether Am would get a look in elsewhere is moot, he’s probably the best 13 available to the Boks and that is where it counts.
          You forgot to throw around the word “domkrag”….. you getting soft?

      • James Wade

        I am also so sick of hearing about POC….Jessie is a selfish player and sees the tryline first before anything else. His thinking is reactive as well. I have no doubt that he can be coached into a great player as he has the talent. I always look at him and Pollard and get the feeling that have that impression that they ‘arrived’. Players like DC and Larkham were not the finished product when they started to play for their respective countries, but they continued to work on their game.

  • Barry Smith

    He had some serious defensive issues in the final England test – not making vital tackles when we had the poms under pressure, instead on the one occassions, opting to shepherd the England player out of his in goal area! Frankly a bit embarrassing! He has some great attributes, but he has some stuff to fix still!

  • John H

    I my opinion Kriel has not shown anything to warrant being selected as first choice test outside centre for the boks. He hardly ever passes and far too often dies with the ball. He is predictable on attack and if he cannot burst through the defence then inevitable he holds on and concedes a penalty. There are numerous instances that I have seen where a promising attacking backline movement is disrupted or loses momentum due to Jesse Kriel’s selfishness or lack of vision. His defense is questionable and often he is a player that misses tackles allowing the wall to break. At the moment Am is a better bet and deserves an extended run in the team, but he is nowhere near where Conrad Smith was.

  • minging

    Oh dear… ”Am… the nearest thing to Conrad Smith internationally…”

    Oh dear indeed…

  • redge

    Knocking the ball in Durban

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