The silent assassin
March 29, 2010
Ruben Kruger would have been 40 on March 30 © PA Photos
Ruben Kruger would have been 40 on March 30. But he died from brain cancer on January 27, just as the arrival in Europe of the film Invictus was reminding us of the peak of his career, South Africa's victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Francois Pienaar wore a black tie to the British premiere of the film to honour his memory.
In the film Kruger appears, like most of the Bok players, as essentially an extra. Grant Roberts had sufficient physical resemblance to make it reasonably clear who he was, but little individuality emerged.
If slightly frustrating to the rugby fan, it reflected the fact that it wasn't really a rugby film, but one in which the game served as a plot device. And that Francois Pienaar and Chester Williams are the only Boks who emerge as individuals also reflects how it was in South Africa in 1995.
They were the names that every South African, rugby fan or not, knew - Pienaar as the charismatic leader, Williams the vital symbol of a changing South Africa. You didn't need to be at the matches, or even to be interested in rugby, to know about them.
They were also both fine players. But if you were at the matches, or watching them on television, you were equally aware of others - the nonchalant brilliance of Andre Joubert at fullback, the jaguar-like breaks of Joost van der Westhuizen and the versatile forward gifts of Mark Andrews.
And still more of Ruben Kruger, a superb all-round backrow forward. The selectors for South African Player of the Year for 1995, an incomparable year, certainly knew about him, because he was their choice ahead of Pienaar, Williams, van der Westhuizen and an entire squad who entered national mythology. This observer of that tournament has no doubt they were right.
Kruger came from the Afrikaner heartland, a Free-Stater who attended that forcing house of Afrikaans talent, sporting and otherwise, Grey College in Bloemfontein where his contemporaries included the cricketer Hansie Cronje. His gifts were spotted early. Paul Dobson, doyen of South African writers, has recalled Louis Babrow - a star of the legendary 1937 Springboks - seeing him in a school match and enthusing about him as a certain future international player. At Craven Schools week in 1988, he was chosen as captain of the representative XV.
Another writer, Greg Smith, has pointed to his early maturity as a player: "He had that look of a much older man. It was like he was born with maturity and built-in rugby experience - if that is possible".
Kruger graduated to the Free State team in 1991 and the Boks in 1993, part of the fresh new generation brought forward when it was clear that the lumbering giants who had emerged from apartheid-era isolation in 1992 would not do for the modern game. The real breakthrough came on the tour of Britain in late 1994 when he played in the tests against Wales and Scotland, and scored in the 78-7 hammering of Welsh champions Swansea that signalled that something truly formidable was brewing in the Republic.
From that tour Kruger was a fixed point in the Bok line-up, starting 31 out of 33 internationals and missing only the Canada match during the World Cup and the final Lions test in 1997 - both effectively dead rubbers.
A clear picture emerges from the recall of those who knew him. To Dobson he was 'quiet, effective, unemotional, courteous". Bok manager Morne du Plessis spoke of "A quiet man of steel…you could go to war with him, a great team member". To Edward Griffiths, then CEO of Rugby South Africa, he was 'quietly brilliant' while coach Kitch Christie labelled him 'the silent assassin'.
He was a key element in the swarming, highly physical defensive effort that strangled opponents from opening day adversaries - and reigning champions - Australia through to the final, and a formidable competitor at the breakdown.
Quiet unobtrusiveness did not, though, stop him catching the eye at crucial moments. Always a highly effective carrier and maker of hard yards, he scored the single try in absurbly aquatic conditions that won the semi-final against France and came closer than anyone - du Plessis still reckons it was a try - to crossing the line in the final.
The final was his 10th appearance for South Africa. It was not until the 15th, their first Tri-Nations match against Australia in 1996, that he finished on the losing side. Later that year, against a French team determined to avenge their semi-final loss with a win on home ground, it was his hand that diverted the Christophe Lamaison drop-goal attempt that could have deprived the Boks of a 13-12 win.
The effective end came early, at 27, as he broke his ankle in the act of scoring for the Boks against the All Blacks at Eden Park in August 1997. He battled back to play three more tests and earn a place in the 1999 World Cup, ending anticlimactically against the All Blacks at Cardiff in a third place match awful even by the standards of those benighted occasions. His total of 36 caps placed him third, at the time, on the all-time list for Springbok flankers, behind Andre Venter and Jan Ellis.
The first diagnosis of brain cancer came the following year after a blackout in a match at Loftus Versfeld. He was treated successfully then, but the disease returned with a vengeance last year. His early death sadly echoes that of Christie, who died of leukaemia in 1998. His will be the empty chair at future team reunions, but he certainly will not be forgotten either by his team-mates or those of us who saw him as perhaps the best forward across the length of the tournament at the 1995 World Cup.
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