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Thursday, May 30, 2024

‘It felt unreal’ … Lions legend Jaco Kriel reflects on the final game of his career

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Johannesburg — As Jaco Kriel made his way to Loftus on Saturday to play his final professional rugby game, the immensity of the occasion dawned on him.

“It almost felt unreal,” Kriel said of that trip across the Jukskei and his final match — a 50-35 victory over Zebre.

“As we drove here on the bus, I was in tears. It’s then you realise it is the last team meeting, the last bus trip, my last everything.

“I knew I had to get my emotions under control and do what I can out there for the team for the 80 minutes, going through the process, doing what we had to do — although we played a bit of risky rugby out there.”

“As we walked out at halftime, Andries Coetzee — he is my best friend — told me, ‘you’ve got 40 left, give it all, go for it.’ And then it kicked in a little bit.”

I had a similar sentiment when I drove home the weekend prior after Kriel’s final game for the Lions at the iconic Ellis Park. The trip down Joe Slovo Drive towards the onramp onto the M2 and beyond, was one full of melancholy.

There is no doubt that Kriel is a legend of Lions rugby and to see the 33-year-old hang up his boots after years of service to the union, has put me in a downcast mood. Kriel could have been, should have been a Springbok legend, too, but persistent injuries curtailed his ambitions in the green and gold.

It was with much sadness then to watch Kriel decide to end his career, but the impact that he had on the Lions can never be underestimated. The loose forward started his journey at the union in 2008, playing in their junior setup.

He persisted in Doornfontein through the trials of the tribulations, rising through the ranks of the Lions to captain them to yet unmatched success in the professional era. He was in the team that contested the 2014 Currie Cup final and the captain of the unbeaten 2015 Lions team that swept all aside to the championship that year.

He was integral to the Lions making the Super Rugby final in three consecutive seasons from 2016 to 2018. The Lions lost all three of those finals – a memory that perhaps will always burden Kriel with postulations.

Nevertheless, when Kriel was on song and in-form, he was a joy to behold. He was a marauding presence out wide, a terror at the breakdown and led from the front with charm and dignity.

He has always been honest and forthright regarding his performances and his assessment of his team – an admirable commodity in a game where obfuscation of feelings and facts is the norm.

His style and glory in motion was probably epitomised during the semi-final in 2015 against the Free State Cheetahs. Kriel scored two tries during that match, but it was his second that is fondly remembered.

The Cheetahs refused to submit in the game and in the 69th minute led the Lions – now under the cosh – 33-30. Fielding a deep kick, the Lions played the full width of the field, Kriel collecting the ball on the visitors 10m line.

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Kriel would go on to swat three tacklers away as he hared down the touchline, crossing the tryline and ending the Cheetahs resistance with a brilliant individual moment.

Kriel’s retirement is well earned but boy, I am going to miss watching him play. At the Jolly Rodger in Parkhurts, a Lions jersey hangs proudly, Kriel’s signature scribbled across it.

When I enjoy a pint or two in that pub, I will remember to salute it with a “Cheers”.

@FreemanZAR

IOL Sport

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