The Glory of '95: Quiet Ruben Kruger let his play do all the talking
The flank showed at a young age that he was going to be a great Springbok and so it turned out, with him being named SA Rugby Player of the Year in 1995 - the same season the Boks won the World Cup for the first time.
Kruger had a presence on the field like few others in his time and from the moment he pulled on the Bok jersey - for the first time in 1993 - he was a respected and feared teammate, and opponent. He didn’t say much, but he didn’t have to - his play, work rate and skills did all the talking that was needed.
Kruger’s most impressive period in the Bok jersey - which he wore on 36 occasions between 1993 and 1999 - came during 1995 World Cup. He was immense in the five matches he played. Against the Wallabies in the opening game his hard-tackling and defensive powers came to the fore, while in the knockout stages he delivered three all-round performances that made the world take notice.
After his 80-minutes of tackling in the quarter-final against Western Samoa he was left with such a sore arm he couldn’t lift it above his shoulders, in the semi-final in the wet of Durban against France he scored a crucial try, and in the final against New Zealand he tackled like a man possessed and carried the ball strongly for the Boks.
Kruger, who died at the young age of 39 in 2010 following a 10-year battle with brain cancer, stood out from the crowd at a young age. His legend started to gain momentum at high school already, when at Grey College in Bloemfontein he became a cult hero and one of the greatest schoolboy players South Africa has seen.
After impressing in his junior years in the north eastern Free State, where he grew up on a farm in Vrede, Kruger quickly caught the attention of scouts. He soon found his way to Bloemfontein and Grey College where one day while in grade 10 and playing with the Under-16s, he impressed his coaches so much that the school decided he needed to play with the seniors. He was simply too strong for the boys in his age group and the coaches felt he would hurt the other boys, according to then head of rugby at Grey’s, Dries van der Wal.
Kruger was sent to the seniors and quickly settled in the first team. He became a star as he powered his way through and over everyone he came up against, and he was selected for the SA Schools team in his grade 11 and 12 years.
Kruger was a sensational young rugby player. “He was a very physical player, and already as big in grade 10 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 said of Kruger at his memorial service.
After leaving school, Kruger ran out for the Free State and in 1993 was picked for the Boks for the first time. Now no longer the biggest and strongest man on the field, the No 7 flank had to adapt his game; he couldn’t simply run over opponents anymore. He became more of a so-called fetcher, and added that aspect of the game to his role as carrier, making him even more deadly and dangerous.
Kruger then became a mainstay in the Springbok team when Kitch Christie took over as Bok boss and he thrived under the World Cup-winning coach. Later, after the successes of 1995, 1996 and 1997, Kruger would lose his place in the team to a young up-and-comer, Rassie Erasmus. At the 1999 World Cup, Kruger made just two starts.
In 2000, after collapsing on the field, he was forced to quit rugby after it was found that he had a tumour on the brain. He underwent several operations, but sadly lost his battle in 2010.
Kruger was a quiet, softly-spoken man who lived for his family. He was, according to a family member, just a boerseun (farmer’s boy) who did everything according to the book and without complaint. He worked hard, loved rugby, and didn’t like the limelight or the attention; Kruger was a gentle giant and, as former Grey principal Johan Volsteedt referred to him, a “man among men.”