PRETORIA – It was not that long ago when Springbok and Bulls centre Jesse Kriel relied purely on talent and instinct.
That would have been clear for all to see in his maiden Super Rugby season for the Bulls three years ago, the reliance further highlighted by his Test debut against the Wallabies in which Kriel scored a brilliant individual try.
However, in the aftermath of his breakthrough season, Kriel has struggled to tap into that talent and instinct, often hindered by being shifted between fullback and centre, and even wing, to being left to his own devices in varying structured game-plans at the Bulls and Springboks.
At the same time though, Kriel also experienced the growing pains that most, if not all, young rugby stars go through. But he seemingly took longer than most to shake off the indifferent form that had plagued his rising star.
This year, however, Kriel is a different player and, while that talent and instinct are still very much part of his game, he has become better than the young kid fresh out of Maritzburg College in 2015.
Kriel has already scored four tries this season but his biggest contribution has been his selflessness in making sure that his teammates on his outside, and at times his inside, are better placed to score tries.
“When I go and look at a game on a Sunday, I look more at unseen efforts and how I worked off the ball. Those are more important to me than linebreaks and scoring. That doesn’t really get me excited.
“That is another thing that Mitch (coach John Mitchell) has been really good at - unseen efforts and the work you do off the ball - those dummy lines you run that open space for other players, serving other players early, getting the ball into Warrick Gelant's hands early. That has been a big focus of mine this season, getting the ball into his hands early. Allowing him to make magic, getting the ball into the wings’ hands and getting them to work their magic. That is the kind of satisfaction I have been getting, serving others early and getting other guys, linking them and getting into space,” Kriel explained.
Much of Kriel’s rebirth has been largely due to his willingness to learn and find enjoyment in the game but part of it has been the arrival of Mitchell at Loftus Versfeld.
“I think he (Mitchell) has had a big hand in that. I think he has changed the whole mindset and I don’t think it was a case that the guys didn’t have a skillset here. It was more a mindset, and if you want to call it - freedom that he has given the guys.
“Mitch’s whole view on things is that structure gives you freedom and we’ve got structures in place that are really giving the players freedom and giving us much more time and space on the ball. We’re serving the system and serving each other. That is where we are finding enjoyment on the field,” Kriel said.
The 24-year-old Kriel’s form has not only been good for the Bulls but it will also be comforting for Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus with Sharks centre Lukhanyo Am and Lions centre Lionel Mapoe also showing good form ahead of the June series against England.
As much as Kriel keeps an eye on his opposite number, he is not overly obsessed with what the competition for the Springbok No 13 jersey is doing and is more focused on improving himself for his franchise team and national side if he is the man to be at outside centre.
“Not really. Obviously when I analyse other teams I see other guys playing well and we obviously see stats when we analyse other teams. But I’ve purely been focused on what I have to do here and what Mitch expects of me as a 13. Obviously the Boks, Rassie has been really hands on and has told us what he expects from us.”
“I think it has just been working a lot on my game as an individual and where I need to work to contribute to the team. That has just been my drive and where I have put all my energy - in bettering my skillset and bettering myself as a player so I can contribute as a player and for the team on Saturday,” Kriel added.
Tomorrow in Buenos Aires against a resurgent Jaguares side, Kriel will have to once again serve the team ahead of his own ambitions if the Bulls are to break their winless run in South America.
Even without centre partner and captain Burger Odendaal in the team and injuries to Lood de Jager and Lizo Gqoboka, Kriel believes the move of Handre Pollard to inside centre and the leadership of hooker Adriaan Strauss will be more than sufficient in giving the Bulls a good enough chance to topple the Jaguares.
“As you’ve seen with England, their 10s slot into centre. Handre is a big physical boy and he can handle the contact there in the midfield.”
The Bulls team is:
Warrick Gelant, Travis Ismaiel, Jesse Kriel, Handre Pollard (captain), Johnny Kotze, Manie Libbok, Ivan van Zyl, Marco van Staden, Thembelani Bholi, Roelof Smit, RG Snyman, Jason Jenkins, Conraad van Vuuren, Adriaan Strauus, Trevor Nyakane.
Replacements: Jaco Visagie, Mox Mxoli, Frans van Wyk, Hendre Stassen, Nic de Jager, Andre Warner, JT Jackson, Divan Rossouw.