Family tragedies have put rugby into perspective for Jaco Kriel, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG for SARugbyMag
‘I haven’t spoken about this, it’s hard,’ says Jaco Kriel in a modest office at the Lions training facility at Joburg Stadium.
As the sound of players working out nearby thrums through the thin walls, he settles in before revealing that his father, Herman, is fighting motor neuron disease, the affliction that killed Joost van der Westhuizen and Tinus Linee, and has Doddie Weir, the former Scotland lock, in its deadly grip.
The devastation is doubly difficult for Kriel to bear. His father has been an ever-present support, particularly when Kriel lost his mother, sister and brother in an unfathomably wretched three-year period while he was still at high school in Standerton.
‘My dad was so strong for me. Coping, with his help, was a blessing from the top. It was a tough thing to deal with in school. Somehow I got through … we got through.’
Kriel’s honesty is unvarnished, in keeping with his personality. What you see is what you get from the vibrant Lions and Springbok loose forward.
The tragedies aren’t something he dwells on, but you sense that the deaths of mom Jeanette, brother Stanley and sister Elaine give him a grounding that helps anchor him to the ‘real’ world.
He’s modest about his achievements, among them being shortlisted as South Africa’s Player of the Year a few months ago, and feels strongly about being more than just a rugby player.
He’s in the property business with some rugby pals – buying, renting, selling and developing – ever mindful of the need to craft a career that will endure. He knows rugby can end at any moment, especially as he is at the tailend of recovery after the first major surgery of his career.
The injury to his left shoulder provided a stark reminder of his mortality. Until he wrecked himself playing against Australia, he was flying, laying waste to opponents and living the charmed life of an elite player. Rehabilitation, and being away from the heat of action, has since taught him to look inward, to take nothing for granted, which is why he’s more eager than ever to work his way back into contention.
Unaccustomed to injury, he’s not exactly sure how he should feel, but he’s nonetheless energised by the thought of working with an intellectual maverick like Rassie Erasmus.
‘We had a difficult time with the Boks last year, so I’m looking forward to seeing what Rassie brings. It’s exciting,’ he says. ‘I’ve been blessed to work under Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin, guys who know him well. He has a real rugby brain.’
Aged 28, Kriel is sharply aware of the need to conserve his body, which is why his dalliance with Japan, where he played three seasons for the Kubota Spears in the off-season, is a thing of the past. He enjoyed the experience, but has learned the need to rest and refresh, even if it means losing out on loads of cash.
Chasing the Bok No 6 jersey last year, Kriel was encouraged by Ackermann to set higher standards. Yet, it was an inauspicious start as the Lions narrowly escaped with a win in their opening Super Rugby match, in Bloemfontein.
Ackermann blasted them and Kriel was discomfited. ‘I decided then to step up; to be the Jaco Kriel I can be,’ he says.
The Lions flourished and although they eventually lost the final at home, it was a remarkable run. Having played flyhalf until Grade 10, he isn’t as natural a six as he sometimes appears. Since school he’s tended to play a wide game at openside, but has since been drawn to play more towards the ball, spoiling in defence.
Given the way the Lions play, though, the difference between six and seven is less stark, because they haven’t always found it necessary to house a big ball-carrier at blindside.
His versatility is evident when you consider that when he got his first Test start, in his seventh international, against France at Ellis Park in 2017, he packed down at blindside, with Siya Kolisi opposite. And that’s how it stayed until he was injured, in his 11th Test, in Perth a few months later.
He’s heard the talk of Erasmus opting for a Warren Whiteley-Duane Vermeulen combination at eight and seven, which excites him. He’ll muck in anywhere he’s required.
He’s now at an age where life has given him perspective. This explains why he feels so strongly about the need for players to have balance in their lives. Even though Kriel has a girlfriend, a physiotherapist (which must come in handy), he shares a house on Johannesburg’s east side with Andries Coetzee. Former housemate Faf de Klerk recently decamped to the UK, so there’s a little more room nowadays.
He’s especially tight with Coetzee and Whiteley, but reckons the Lions are more a brotherhood than a squad, so friendship and fun comes easily to the group at large.
He plays golf when he can, off a 17, checking out local courses like Kempton Park and Silver Lakes; whichever offers the best deal.
Kriel knows South Africa’s depth at loose forward is formidable, which explains his philosophy of not keeping up, but rather setting the trend.
His goal as a youngster was to play for the Boks, but he ought to have aimed higher.
‘I should have dreamed of 50 caps, maybe even 100,’ he says with a laugh. ‘I want to be the best in my position and when I leave, it must be on my terms. But, more than that, I want a happy wife and kids.
‘Rugby has given me a good foundation. I’m grateful.’
– This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The May issue is on sale 23 April.