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Jesse Kriel speaks about his great-grandfather John Hodgson with pride. It has been 50 years since Hodgson passed away, and nearly a century since he represented the British & Irish Lions. Nevertheless, Kriel reflects on his ancestor’s achievements with excitement. Although this year’s series between the Springboks and the Lions has been threatened by the ongoing pandemic, Kriel is more determined than ever to feature whenever and wherever it takes place.

Several members of the 2019 World Cup-winning team hail from famous South African sporting families. Francois Louw followed in grandfather Jan Pickard’s footsteps when he represented the Boks, as did Pieter-Steph du Toit when he emulated Piet ‘Spiere’ du Toit. 

After scoring a hat-trick in a World Cup match against Canada, Cobus Reinach was compared to his late father Jaco, who won caps in 1986 and also represented South Africa in athletics.

Kriel grew up in the knowledge that Hodgson had played for England between 1932 and 1936. Until as recently as November, however, he wasn’t aware that Hodgson had been a Lion on the 1930 tour of Australasia.

The cap represents his sacrifice in terms leaving of his family for a long time. It also represents all his hard work and dedication.

Jesse Kriel

“My great-grandfather’s cap was sent to my grandfather’s sister, Dianna, as John was her father. The family is thrilled to have it,” Kriel tells The XV.

“The Lions sent out these caps to players a while back. My great-grandfather’s cap hadn’t been claimed, though, because he had passed away. A family member in England got in contact with the Lions and organised for it to be sent to South Africa.

“It’s a special gesture on several levels. The Lions were on tour for more than four months, so the cap represents his sacrifice in terms of leaving his family for a long time. It also represents all his hard work and dedication.

“I know what my Springbok cap means to me, so I can imagine what the Lions cap would have meant to him. I know how much it means to our whole family.”

Kriel has posted pictures of the cap and his great-grandfather on his social media accounts. Many fans have remarked on the resemblance. 

Kriel laughs when this message is relayed. “Maybe we look alike, but he was a flank and I’m a centre. I think that my brother Dan [who plays centre for the Johannesburg-based Lions] got his height. I’m not sure where I got my speed from, though!”

Hodgson played in 15 of the 28 tour matches and started two of the four Tests against the All Blacks – helping the Lions to a 6-3 victory in Dunedin and featuring in the 15-10 loss in Auckland.

I’d always known that I had an ancestor that played for England, but I didn’t know that he also played for the Lions.

Jesse Kriel

He also earned seven Test caps for England, including one against the Springboks at Twickenham in 1932. In 2018, some 86 years later, Hodgson’s great-grandson started for South Africa at the home of rugby.

“There’s obviously a deep rivalry there between England and South Africa, and now I find myself on the other side of that,” says Kriel.

Jacque Fourie scores a try for South Africa against the British and Irish Lions
Jacque Fourie scored a mesmeric try for South Africa in the second Test win over the Lions in 2009 (Getty Images)

“My family has always been mad about sport. I’d always known that I had an ancestor that played for England, but I didn’t know that he also played for the Lions. 

“We found out when our extended family in England put in a request for his Lions cap. It’s been a massive talking point on our family WhatsApp group ever since. I’m more excited than ever for the Lions series this year.”

That try scored by Jaque Fourie in the second Test is surely one of the greatest of all time.

Kriel believes the Lions Series inspires like no other

Kriel was a 15-year-old student at Martizburg College in KwaZulu-Natal the last time the Lions toured South Africa in 2009. The epic Test series between the Boks and Lions – won 2-1 by the hosts – left a big impression.

“That try scored by Jaque Fourie in the second Test is surely one of the greatest of all time. Bryan Habana scored an absolute scorcher after running off Fourie du Preez’s shoulder and taking a midfield gap. Then there was Morné Steyn’s kick from his own half to win the game and the series. 

“I watched all of that as a rugby-mad teenager and dreamed about emulating those feats. A few years later, I got the chance to rub shoulders with my heroes, to learn from them and to play at a World Cup alongside them. I just soaked it all in.”

Kriel and his twin brother Dan represented the Junior Springboks at the World Rugby U20 championship in 2014, where they defeated hosts New Zealand twice before going down to England in the final. He was recruited by the Bulls and then backed by the international selectors to debut despite his tender age. 

The 2015 World Cup campaign began in the worst possible fashion when South Africa lost to Japan. They bounced back to win their pool, and came within three points of beating eventual champions New Zealand in the semi-finals.

Kriel played and Pat Lambie both played for South Africa at Under 20 and senior level (Getty Images)

“I’ve grown up a helluva lot since then,” Kriel says with a chuckle. “I think back to how I was in 2015 and wonder what the hell I was doing. 

“But at the age of 20 you learn by doing. It’s all part of the journey. You keep adding something to your game every year. I’m 26 now, and I’m nowhere near the finished article. I’m still pushing myself.”

The World Cup win is the highlight of my career, even though I was injured for most of the campaign.

Jesse Kriel

Kriel has no regrets about how 2019 panned out. The centre sustained a hamstring injury in South Africa’s opening World Cup game against New Zealand, and was ruled out for the rest of the tournament. He returned to Japan several weeks later to watch the Boks beat England in the final, though, and shared in the celebrations. 

As Bok coach Rassie Erasmus and several others remarked afterwards, Kriel deserved his winners’ medal after playing such an important role in the squad.

“That World Cup win is the highlight of my career, even though I was injured for most of the campaign,” Kriel says. “If you look at that squad, a lot of the players were around four years before. They went through the tough times in 2016 [when the Boks lost a record eight Tests] and then reaped the rewards [the 2019 Rugby Championship and World Cup triumphs] by being resilient and finding solutions.

“It was an extremely important win for South Africa as a nation. As players, we understood from the outset what this kind of result could do to bring positivity and hope to the people.

“It was a tough day when I heard that I would be going home with an injury, but it didn’t take too long for me to shift my energy and focus. I have absolutely no regrets about the 2019 World Cup and the way things turned out. I gave my all to the Springbok team wherever I could and the boys did us proud by getting the job done.”

Jesse Kriel with the Webb Ellis Cup
Kriel missed most of the World Cup through injury but still ranks South Africa’s triumph as the best of his career (Getty Images)

The Covid-19 crisis and the resultant lockdown in South Africa presented players with numerous physical and mental challenges. Kriel, who boasts a reputation as one of the Boks’ fittest and most disciplined players, has kept the next big goal of facing the Lions in mind.

“When I first entered the Bulls setup, I told myself that I would always do more than was expected. That way, if I worked harder than anyone else, I would never have any regrets,” he explains.

“Those extra sessions have become a feature of my career. I’m constantly searching for something else that will make me a better player. 

Lukhanyo Am is likely to start at No 13 against the Lions and after leading the Sharks in 2020 there is talk that he may one day captain the Boks. 

Jon Cardinelli

“Look, there have been times when a little voice in my head has whispered, ‘Maybe you’ve done enough, take the next day or two off’. That’s the kind of mental battle you have with yourself. That’s the challenge.”

Lukhanyo Am is likely to start at No 13 against the Lions and after leading the Sharks in 2020 there is talk that he may one day captain the Boks. 

The emergence of Am, as many have opined, has forced Kriel to take his own game to another level. It’s a healthy situation for South Africa, who will need multiple midfield options and ultimately a large squad of players to cope with the demands of the 2021 season.

Kriel currently plays for Canon Eagles in Japan. While the campaign has been disrupted, he has continued to work at improving his game. 

Jesse Kriel hands off Lukhanyo Am
Jesse Kriel and Lukhanyo Am may be vying for a berth in the Springboks midfield this year (Getty Images)

“I can’t remember the last time I had a proper pre-season,” he says. “There’s been a big focus on conditioning recently and I can honestly say that I’ve never felt better in my life. 

“The extra time off has given me a chance to develop other areas of my game – things that I wouldn’t have had time for otherwise. At Canon, we’ve been introduced to a range of training methods aimed at sharpening our skills.

“I want to be seen as more of a playmaker, so I have to improve my balance and my ability to deliver an attacking kick from either foot. There’s obviously a lot of speed and evasion work. I want to gain an edge that will put me in the picture when the Boks select their team in the coming months.”

The Japanese season will conclude in May. Thereafter, Kriel will head back to South Africa and continue to prepare for what many consider to be the ultimate – an opportunity to face the Lions. 

“We were in touch with the Bok coaches throughout the lockdown, putting plans in place for 2021. I’ve just got to work as hard as I can for the chance to play.

“I want to be part of the Bok setup for as long as I play rugby. Little tops playing for the Boks and being part of the series against the Lions would be a dream come true.”

More stories from Jon Cardinelli

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