Springboks may opt for tried and trusted Jesse Kriel in the absence of Lukhanyo Am

Expectation in South African media is that Damian de Allende and Kriel will once again combine

Lukhanyo Am’s claim to be the best outside centre in world rugby since a star turn at the 2019 World Cup in Japan wouldn’t have too many dissenting voices. The 28-year-old boasts the rugby smarts to complement his athletic prowess and is equally adept in attack and defence.

His absence from the South African squad for the November tour to the northern hemisphere due to a knee injury will be keenly felt.

Springboks’ head coach Jacques Nienaber is likely to turn to another 28-year-old, Jesse Kriel, to fill the number 13 jersey — a role he discharged for the majority of his 56 caps since making his debut against Australia in 2015.

It’s just not the position he’s filled for much of the time in which Nienaber’s been in charge. Kriel has played on the wing, deputising to some degree for the injured Cheslin Kolbe.


But if you look at Kriel’s first 50 caps, he started 37 at outside centre, came on as a replacement in the midfield a further eight times, while amassing a modest four caps in the run-on team as a wing and once as a replacement there. He played all three Tests last November on the wing and against New Zealand in August.

Am’s injury facilitated a return to the Springbok 13 jersey for Kriel at the start of September in the game against Australia in Sydney. Quietly spoken, Kriel was asked about whether he feels any additional pressure in replacing Am. “Not at all. Lukhanyo has set a great standard, he has been playing amazing rugby. I know what the role and the responsibilities [of] my position and what I must do to contribute to the team, so I am looking forward to the challenge.”

Kriel was born in Cape Town, a twin, his brother Dan is also a professional rugby player and a centre too, and the pair were part of the South Africa Under-20 team that lost the 2014 Junior World Cup final 21-20 to England in Auckland.

Jesse celebrated his Springboks debut against Australia with a try and the following week against New Zealand scored a second to make quite the start to his Test career. Kriel played alongside Damian de Allende in those matches, a midfield partnership that would endure right through the 2015 World Cup in England.

There was only one match at the global tournament when they didn’t play together; Kriel partnered Jean de Villiers in the infamous pool defeat to Japan in Brighton. South Africa recovered to make the semi-final before finishing third.

Kriel played alongside Juan de Jongh and Jan Serfontein and was largely first choice until losing his place to Am in the Rugby Championship ahead of that World Cup in Japan. A hamstring injury in the 16-16 drawn pool match against New Zealand when coming on as a replacement brought a premature end to his tournament and he was replaced by Damian Willemse.

He did return to Japan as a supporter in time to watch the Springboks being crowned world champions. Kriel also missed out on the 2021 Test series against the British & Irish Lions, in which he would dearly love to have played for family reasons.

Kriel’s great-grandfather John Hodgson was a member of the Lions party that toured New Zealand and Australia in 1930. The Gosforth-born forward played in 15 matches during the tour and his great-grandsons have heard stories of his experiences.

De Allende and Am were Nienaber’s preferred midfield partnership as the Springboks beat the Lions 2-1 but with the latter’s injury, Kriel finds himself alongside, not only a familiar face. When restored during the Rugby Championship he said: “I am very excited to be back in the midfield with Damian. It’s another good opportunity. We are all good friends off the field and that makes a big difference. It’s always really special playing with guys like Damian.”

Kriel has played against Ireland on two occasions previously and both times lined up against Robbie Henshaw. The first time was in 2016 in Cape Town when Joe Schmidt’s Ireland won a Test for the first time on South African soil when beating the Springboks 26-20 despite the visitors having CJ Stander sent off.

Saturday’s game

Kriel replaced Lionel Mapoe to join de Allende in the ‘Bok midfield with Henshaw and Luke Marshall, the Irish centres. The second time was a November Test in 2017 at the Aviva Stadium where Ireland ran out 38-3 winners with Bundee Aki and Henshaw the Irish centre combination that opposed de Allende and Kriel.

Nienaber will name the South African team at lunchtime ahead of Saturday’s game and the expectation in the South African media is that de Allende and Kriel will once again suit up as a combo.

The alternatives would be to hand Harlequins Andre Esterhuizen the 12 jersey, with de Allende moving to outside centre or to give promising 21-year-old Henco van Wyk, a standout with the Lions this season, his opportunity.

The absence of first-choice outhalf Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies suggests that Nienaber will seek assurance in choosing a tried and trusted centre partnership and the de Allende-Kriel axis fits the bill perfectly.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer