The silent assassin

2010-01-30 00:00

WHEN Grey College headmaster Johan Volsteedt took the scripture reading during the school assembly yesterday morning he referred to Ruben Kruger as a “man among men”.

And that is also how school rugby coaches and team-mates, and others who had anything to do with Kruger remembered him on Thursday.

They remember him as a gentle, humble rugby giant of few words who did his talking on the field.

His contribution during the Rugby World Cup tournament in 1995 will always remain etched in people’s memories, especially that controversial try in the semi-final against France and the other one in the final against the All Blacks, which was not awarded.

Volsteedt and Dries van der Wal, head of rugby at Grey College, still remember when Ruben started as a pupil at the school in standard 8 in 1986.

He was from Vrede, where his parents, Baan and Cecilia Kruger, farmed on Kalkkrans Farm.

Van der Wal relates how he remembers Ruben attending his first rugby practice with the under-16s.

“The next day the coach told Lappies (Jos Labuschagné): ‘That boy is too strong. He has to go to the first team, otherwise he’s going to hurt the other under 16 oukies.”

Labuschagné (now retired), Van der Wal and André Swanepoel were coaching Grey’s first rugby team at the time.

According to Van der Wal and Swanepoel, it is exceptional for a grade 10 player to play for Grey’s first rugby side, as Ruben managed to do.

The only other player Van der Wal can recall having done that was Pieter de Haas in the 1980s.

Van der Wal says it was a foregone conclusion even at that stage that Kruger would become a Springbok.

“He was a very physical player, and already as big in standard 8 as in matric and later.

“Because of his wonderful balance, good anticipation and strong hand-off he scored a lot of tries. Even at school he used to run with the ball in one hand.”

Van der Wal also remembers Kruger as dedicated, withdrawn and humble. “Even though he was a physical player he was never a fighter.

“The late Kitch Christie and the 1995 Rugby World Cup players nicknamed him ‘Silent Assassin’, and that probably sums him up best.

“He was a man of few words, who spoke loudly between the four lines of the rugby field.”

Volsteedt recalls how Kruger spoke to the Grey College first team before a match against Affies in Pretoria a few years ago.

“In his quiet way he came across very powerfully. It wasn’t necessary for him to say much. He could just be Ruben Kruger.”

Kruger was an excellent all-rounder. Swanepoel recalls how he won the shot-put at a Grey athletics meeting without any practice.

“Then there was the time,” says Van der Wal, “when he participated in the discus event at an SA Schools athletics competition.

“It overlapped with a schools rugby tournament at St Stithians in Johannesburg. Because of the athletics, Ruben hadn’t been at rugby practice, but that afternoon he scored a wonderful try for the first team against Paul Roos Gimnasium.

“He ran in his fleet-footed way and handed off one opponent after the other. When he scored, there was a trail of about five players lying in his wake.”

Swanepoel remembers Kruger as one of the school rugby players with the most natural talent he had ever come across.

Ruben played as number seven flanker for Grey’s first rugby team in 1986, 1987 and 1988.

In 1987 Hansie Cronjé, who subsequently captained the Proteas cricket team, was the team’s eighth man and captain.

The Grey team of 1988, which was long known as “the best schools team ever”, later produced five Springboks: Kruger, Charl Marais, Naka Drotské, Pieter Muller and Heinrich Fuls.

Marais was Grey’s first team captain, while Ruben captained the SA Schools rugby side.

Former Volksblad sports writer Georg van Eck was reporting on schools rugby in those days.

“Even in standard 8, Ruben was a gentle giant. He and Naka (Drotské) were one of the best flanker combinations I had ever seen. As with Os du Randt, it was clear even in his school days that he would become a Springbok.”

Drotské (who is from Senekal) and Kruger came a long way together. They played together for the Eastern Free State Craven Week primary schools team and later for Grey College, Free State and the Springboks.

“He never talked much, and had very firm principles. He will be missed as a rugby legend,” said Drotské.

Ollie le Roux agrees that Kruger was a brilliant all-rounder with exceptional ball skills. “If it hadn’t been for rugby, he could have focused on tennis. He was also mad about golf.

“Ruben was a calm, humble guy without a big opinion about things. But on the field with him you had to play and not mess around, otherwise he would soon let you know about it.”

Ollie recalls an incident between lock Adri Geldenhuys and an opponent when the Springboks were playing against the Maoris in a muddy game in Rotorua, New Zealand.

“That was the only time Ruben got really angry. He began tackling the Maoris in the backline one after the other, just about cutting them in half, sometimes two in one go.

“People don’t understand what a good rugby player he was,” said Le Roux.

Ruben and Lize (Cronjé), whom he later married, started dating while they were still at school. She is the sister of Volksblad sports editor Hendrik Cronjé, and cousin to the late Hansie Cronjé.

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