Ex-Bok finds peace after career-ending injury

Cape Town - There aren't many Springboks who can say they won a Rugby World Cup and Tri-Nations trophy, and it is hard to imagine it happening anytime soon, especially with Allister Coetzee's Springboks stuttering to just four wins in 2016.

So when I got the opportunity to chat to former Springbok lock Krynauw Otto on his short, but fulfilling career as a professional rugby player, I jumped at the opportunity.

Otto's story is a unique one - combining success at the highest level with a life-threatening moment that prematurely ended his career. 

Otto was given his international break on rugby's biggest stage - the Rugby World Cup in 1995 - making his debut against Romania at Newlands. He was 23 at the time. 

"That wasn't the perfect start to my Test career, but at least we won (21-8) and everything worked out fine. It was a huge honour and privilege playing for South Africa," Otto told Sport24 in an exclusive interview.

"We didn't win by a big margin, but in retrospect we won the World Cup so we wouldn't change anything or the run we had to the final."

Otto only appeared in two pool games - against Romania and Canada - as well as the quarter-final against Samoa. Although he didn’t step onto the pitch during the historic final at Ellis Park, he was part of the legacy.

We've seen the montage of the late SA President Nelson Mandela handing over the Webb Ellis Cup to Francois Pienaar after the Springboks defeated the All Blacks 15-12 after extra time as the entire country celebrated.

Otto describes the iconic moment as "surreal".

"At that time, South Africa was ready for something big and everywhere we travelled there was a huge fanfare - even when we booked into our hotels. I was lucky to be in that 26-man squad and play the few games I did."

Breaking into the national squad was never going to be easy. Otto had to contest with the likes of Kobus Wiese, Mark Andrews, Fritz van Heerden and Albert van den Berg in the second row.

And although he would be a part of the champion Tri-Nations squad of 1998, Otto never really felt completely settled in a Bok jersey.  

"Over a time you find it so hard to make the Test team that you have to say to yourself, 'I'm not going to play rugby to become a Springbok, but just enjoy what I do,'" he said.

"Let me enjoy every second on the field. I was lucky when (former Springbok coach) Nick Mallett taught and gave me the opportunity to play. He put his faith in me and I felt like he trusted me and I was happy with my performance then."

In addition to his international accolades, Otto also won a Currie Cup with the Blue Bulls in 1998.

"I grew up as a big Bulls fan and my big ambition was to play one game for the Bulls and retire," said the now 45-year-old Otto.


It is hard to predict what more Otto could have achieved had he retired at a "normal" age.

Instead, his playing career came to an abrupt end in 2000 when he suffered a subdural haematoma in the left frontal area of his brain on Springbok duty against the Wallabies.

Otto was forced to retire at the age of 28 after playing 38 Tests for his country.

"I really wanted to play a few years longer," Otto reminisced.

"It was quite tough to make peace with (the injury). You had guys like Johan Ackermann (former Springbok lock) and other team-mates who still played for another 10 years or so.

"After a few years the trauma subsides, but they were still earning money and you have to find a new career ... that was a bit depressing at the time."

Life after rugby wasn't easy for the former Bok lock as he struggled to adapt to a completely different lifestyle.

"Although I studied electrical engineering, I didn't really plan for anything after rugby. I thought I would retire at 34, but you never plan for early retirement," he said.

"At that time I took a proper salary cut and had to start all the way from the bottom again. So at the time the only opportunity I had was coaching at a rugby academy. I spent a lot of time on the field and learning more about the game of rugby."

Otto lent his expertise to Tukkies and Valke, and was brought back 'down to earth' after picking up wet jerseys in the changeroom and doing the laundry.

"I learnt to humble myself while coaching. When you're a player you think you're pretty high on the ladder and you think that things will happen," he said.

"I've learnt that nothing comes easy, you have to work for it. I was a youngster when I became a Springbok and everything happened so quickly. You achieve so much at a young age but after that you realise there's a whole other life out there."

Otto is currently commercial head of the New Reclamation Group - a company that specialises in recycling paper, plastics and metal.

Otto has been at the company for eight years and says that this is the first time since playing rugby where he has felt "proud" of his occupation.

Out of the office, Otto is a fan of the bush and is a keen photographer. He also loves spending time with his kids, Krynauw (17) and Mineke (12).

Otto has 'been there, done that and gotten the World Cup winning T-shirt' and when asked how he would like to be remembered, it was simple.

"I'm pretty proud of my playing career, I achieved much more than I hoped for. I played in an excellent era where there were fewer players so you were remembered," he said.

"I believe life is divided into chapters. As much as I appreciated my playing career and the opportunity to become a Springbok, I just hope I'm not classified as a has-been rugby player.

"I believe in the work I do now at the New Reclamation Group and I know I make a big difference and hopefully I can leave a legacy there as well.

"For my kids, hopefully I can be a good example and I hope I'll be remembered as a good father. You never know what the future holds, maybe one day I'll see my kids or their kids play rugby and I'll maybe give something back to the game again."

Images: Gallo

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