Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Already rewarded with some form of national recognition recently, Jesse Kriel can use the Bulls’ overseas tour to press particularly hard for the Springbok fullback role this season.
He has one advantage, at least for a couple more weeks, over Bok incumbent No 15 Willie le Roux: he will be in the heat of key Super Rugby action whilst Le Roux remains sidelined for the Cheetahs as he gradually recuperates from an ankle problem.
The renowned, Stellenbosch-born playmaker was probably overplayed a little by his franchise (not exactly blessed with a huge arsenal of X-factor players) earlier in the season, and seemed to be visibly labouring with the injury even before it forced him out in mid-April.
He was reckoned to be ruled inactive for some five weeks, which means he may be expected to return to his post roughly around the time of the Cheetahs’ last game of the month and third-last of ordinary season, the Newlands return fixture against the Stormers on May 30.
So that perhaps gives Kriel at least the opening two matches of the Bulls’ tour – the first against the Blues in Auckland on Friday (09:35 SA time) – to advance his own burgeoning cause without the distraction of Le Roux showing off his unique brand of sorcery elsewhere in the competition.
If he has successive strong showings on the often intimidating soil of the current world champion power, New Zealand (the next Bulls date will be against the Chiefs), the exciting 21-year-old could also start to give Bok coach Heyneke Meyer an increasingly tricky but attractive dilemma over who to station in the last line of defence at the outset of the Test season.
We know his efforts in recent weeks have been noticed, as Kriel was included in the earliest group of Bok candidates who attended a Highveld camp at the beginning of May.
The 25-cap Le Roux wore the shirt for the closing Bok Test of 2014 – the disappointing defeat to Wales in Cardiff – and at that point was pretty nailed down in the berth, not only because of his own game-breaking and celebrated anticipatory qualities, but because rival candidates weren’t exactly dime-a-dozen.
But the one thing that has occasionally down-graded Le Roux’s usefulness, if you like, has been his penchant – and sometimes you must expect it from a mercurial player of his nature – for gaffes or rank bad options.
That is where the “arrival” of Kriel for the Bulls this year – he is currently a must-pick in the starting XV, amidst a dangerous back three also featuring Francois Hougaard and Bjorn Basson – has made things interesting.
The stocky, athletic former Baby Bok star (1.88m, 97kg – slightly superior dimensions on both counts than Le Roux) has many of the hard-to-read attacking qualities of the Bok stalwart with ball in hand, whilst his fast-improving kicking game and general calmness and confidence have been other pleasing boxes to tick.
I don’t think you will find too many people believing Le Roux should suddenly be shafted for international purposes, especially if he comes back shortly refreshed and properly fit, but at the very least the Boks should have at least two men reassuringly covering the important fullback slot in this World Cup year.
That would make a welcome change – assuming Kriel continues his upward personal curve in the late stages of Super Rugby – from late last year, for instance, when Meyer really only had Le Roux at his disposal as specialist No 15 on the traditional European tour with someone like versatile Pat Lambie as the emergency cover there.
Let’s not forget that on a notably chequered tour for a tired Bok squad, the ever-slippery Le Roux did provide moments of sublime influence at times.
Apart from Kriel getting the opportunity to further his green-and-gold claims while Le Roux puts the finishing touches outside the white lines to his physical rehab, there is the welcome likelihood that, on the very last day of Super Rugby ordinary season on June 13, Kriel and Le Roux will go head to head for the second time this season (the former had bragging rights result-wise in Bloemfontein, when the Bulls won 39-20) at Loftus on June 13.
Before that, though, the Bulls youngster has greater scope for impressing the Bok brains trust.
He should aim to make that advantage count.
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