There’s a famous urban legend told around Loftus Versfeld about Springbok Ruben Kruger.
Apparently in the deep dark days of Blue Bulls rugby, late in the 1990s where things were going wrong and there were fewer wins than Springboks in a season, Kruger stood firm in front of his team to take the team-talk.
As the side formed a circle, waiting for some words of wisdom to lead them out of the doldrums, Kruger leant in alongside then vice-captain Jacques Olivier, took a deep breath and said: “Jacques and I will play our hearts out today, its up to you to decide what you do.”
With that Kruger got up, turned and walked away, leaving the team dumfounded, confused and searching for inward inspiration.
It was a moment where Kruger did what he did best, led from the front. No big speeches, no fanfare. Just get down and do the work. His teammates respected that.
But that was the Ruben Kruger that I knew, focused, no nonsense and a quiet giant of a man who lived his life to the fullest.
I remember first seeing him as a glimmer on a television screen years ago when he led his Grey College side out for a schools match. For the life of me, I can’t recall the opposition or much about the game, but I do recall that Kruger, all of 18 years old, looked like a grizzled veteran on the rugby field, a man far beyond his youthful looks and one who made an indelible impression on me to keep an eye on.
As the years went on, and on my move to Pretoria I slowly got to know Ruben, or “Ben” as he was more affectionately known, and formed an exceptional working relationship and friendship with the man.
On the field, as a captain, when he spoke, he commanded respect, led from the front and was a giant of the game in more ways than one.
His 36 test matches are a testament to his greatness as a player, from his debut against Argentina in 1993, to his last game in 1999 against Wales, he was a pillar of strength in the Green and Gold jersey. I remember asking him during the 1999 World Cup, where a younger, stronger André Venter was selected ahead of him if he wasn’t disappointed. Ruben gave a trademark, wry smile and replied: “I’d tear my arm off if it meant I could be here in the squad, in any position.”
Kruger will be well remembered for his contribution in the 1995 World Cup team, where he was an integral part of the side that swept South Africa to the William Webb Ellis trophy at Ellis Park, scoring a try in the final which was never allowed. Kruger was also the crucial try-scorer in the semifinal against France at Kings’ Park in Durban. He was named that year as South Africa’s Player of the year. At Loftus in 2000, where the Blue Bulls were playing a Currie Cup fixture against the Falcons, or Valke as they are now known, we never realised the seriousness of the situation when he was carried off the field. It was with shock afterwards we heard that it was a brain tumour.
“I tackled the guy and couldn’t remember anything else,” Ruben said of the October 15 2000 incident. “It was a hard knock, not a big one, but the lights went out and I thought that was strange because they’d gone out in the previous match. I’d had big knocks before without the lights going out.”
“They took me for a scan and found a second-grade tumour in my head. I knew it was all over. You play one day, then the next day you are finished. I’ve been playing since I was six years old and I don’t understand Saturdays without rugby.
“Rugby is a great game but it’s not so nice that I want to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. Giving up is a small price to pay. I’ve had a nice innings but I was in a state of shock for four or five days. Some people phoned me up and they seemed to think I was already dead! I said: “No, it’s not going to kill me. I’m still alive, still kicking”.
I also remember travelling with Ruben and his wife Lize to London in 2000 for a golf day arranged in his honour. Along in the trip was FA Meiring and Schutte Bekker and their wives, two of Ruben’s closest rugby friends. I saw a softer side of the man, a family man who would later become a father, and a kind-hearted giant who touched everyone he met.
On one of those nights, I accompanied Ruben and Schutte to a London bar, to meet Springbok supporters – ex-pats working their gap year in London – and was overwhelmed by how loved he was and even though he had stopped playing, how wonderfully he was received and honoured by people who had only seen him play on television.
When he became a father to Zoe and Isabella over the past few years, Ruben spent much of his time focused on his family, and kept out of the limelight. He ran a successful Minolta franchise in Pretoria and enjoyed his golf with as much passion as he did his rugby.
It was these times that it became difficult for me as a journalist, never wanting to ask the obvious question for fear it would be linked to an article that would be written.
Ruben’s wife Lize was his rock through all the tough times he went through and through their strength of belief they battled through all the obstacles. No man could have asked for a stronger partner, companion and friend to spend his life with.
Ruben and I shared the same doctor, former Blue Bulls prop Henry Kelbrick who is a wonderful physician and saw to his needs up to the very end. The same can be said for his neurosurgeon Dr Pieter Slabbert, who played a massive part in the Krugers’ lives in the past few years.
Today is a sad day for South African rugby, as we say goodbye to a legend, a giant on the field and off it, and a man of character. Rugby is blessed when these men come along every now and then, and is poorer for the loss of such a great soul.
Afrikaans poet Jan Cilliers wrote a moving poem about General Christiaan de Wet that is more than appropriate for Kruger:
daar gaan ‘n man verby, hy groet, en dis verlaas.
Daar’s nog maar een soos hy;
bekyk hom goed.
Which translated means:
there goes a man passing by
he waves farewell
and it’s the last.
There is only one like him,
note him well.
Farewell Ruben, a great man in all respects. You will be missed.