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Ivan Rooyen privileged to see Jaco Kriel grow from a ‘scrawny, small flanker’ into a Lions legend

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Johannesburg – The last of the Old Guard relinquished their watch on Saturday night at Emirates Airline Park after it was revealed that Lions stalwart Jaco Kriel had played his final home game for the union in their United Rugby Championship loss to Leinster.

Former Lions skipper Kriel was a core member of the Lions team that won the Currie Cup in 2015 and helped guide the team to three consecutive SuperRugby finals in 2016 to 2018. He played a handful of games for Kubota Spears in Japan before making a career-defining move to English outfit Gloucester.

Persistent injury, however, curtailed his impact for the Cherry and Whites and he was unable to successfully cement his status at Kingsholm Stadium during a frustrating period between late 2018 and 2020.

He returned to the Lions that year, but once again was hampered by injury. This season, Kriel started the URC under an injury cloud, and as of this past Saturday had played only six of the 17 regular season matches in the tournament.

Nevertheless, he played a mammoth 80 minutes against Leinster on Saturday, but ultimately left the field disappointed after the visitors slotted over a final-minute penalty to secure a remarkable 39-36 victory.

In all, he made six carries and 33m, beating one defender, making one clean break, creating one try assist, while on defence he effected one turnover and 12 tackles in his final match in front of the Lions’ faithful. After the match, Lions head coach Ivan van Rooyen explained the impact that Kriel has had on the squad and the union.

Said Van Rooyen: “I had the privilege to join in 2009 when he was Under-20 and to see that scrawny, small flanker develop into the man he has become – on the field and off it.

“He has had an enormously tough life and to see the positive play (Saturday) night, even with very sore knees and his age slightly against him – to still play 80 minutes – is exactly who Jaco Kriel is. He is one of the toughest men I have ever seen in my life and one of the best teammates that I have worked with.

“He is just relentless. That is his character, that is who he is. Jaco is the kind of guy you want in your team.

“I don’t think he can regret one day in his professional career. I spoke to him earlier this week and his career has literally come full circle. He started here and he had the privilege to go to Japan, go to Europe and end it off back here.

“What a career. What a guy.”

It was a sentiment shared by Lions skipper Marius Louw.

“He is a guy that serves the team,” Louw said. “I don’t remember one day where he hasn’t had a smile on his face.

“Input – in terms of on the field stuff – it is something you expect from a flanker. He has got a good rugby brain.

“Just the cohesion he brings to the team, he brings people together. He has done a lot of off the field stuff for us lately as well and that filters down into the team.

“I have to take my hat off to him for taking on a lot of roles, other than just playing,” he concluded.

Kriel is likely to play his final game for the Lions at Loftus Versveld next week against Zebre in a dead-rubber after the team failed to make the URC play-offs. If he confirms his retirement, he will end his career having been capped on 11 occasions for the Springboks.

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