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.