JON CARDINELLI, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says Juandré Kruger, the Bulls, and now the Boks, are reaping the benefits of his decision to stick with the union over the past two seasons.
Patience. There probably isn’t a player in South Africa who appreciates the concept better than Juandré Kruger. True, there have been many who have bided their time as understudies to great Springbok incumbents, but nobody as accomplished or talented who has had to wait as long for a crack at Super Rugby.
When the opportunity finally arrived on 24 February 2012, Kruger certainly made it count. A new-look Bulls pack manhandled their Sharks counterparts, and Kruger turned in a commanding lineout performance worthy of that iconic No 5 shirt. Thus began a promising Super Rugby career, and so ended a long and testing wait.
By his own admission, Kruger has never had much luck with timing. A product of Paul Roos Gymnasium, he came through Western Province’s junior ranks and debuted for the senior side in the 2006 Vodacom Cup. While he featured for WP in the 2007 Currie Cup, his path was often blocked by two promising No 5s in Andries Bekker and Ross Skeate as well as a grizzled veteran in Selborne Boome.
He was contracted to the Bulls in 2008 and went on to help the union’s youngsters win the Vodacom Cup. And yet, there was a similar problem with Victor Matfield holding a monopoly on the No 5 position and other Springbok locks like Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw featuring regularly in the Bulls Super Rugby squad.
Kruger returned to Pretoria in mid-2010 after a two-year stint with English club Northampton. He would still have to wait for an opportunity, although he never suspected it would be as long as 18 months before he played his first Super Rugby game. He was included in the Bulls squad in 2011 but didn’t get on to the field; instead he sat on the bench for just one match against the Highlanders. This frustration may have prompted other players to move on, but Kruger kept faith in his coaches and held on to his dream of playing at the highest level.
‘I realised that Victor, Bakkies and Danie were playing ahead of me, and I wanted what was best for the team,’ he remembers. ‘I backed the decision of my coaches but at the same time I was obviously frustrated that I didn’t get one game. I also had a lot of experience having featured in more than 50 matches across the European competitions. It was difficult, but I suppose I learned a lot during that period. It built a lot of character and probably helped me get to where I am today.’
While the Bulls soldiered on in Super Rugby, Kruger captained the Blue Bulls in the Vodacom Cup.
‘The way we fought back in our semi-final against the Lions was a real highlight. It was difficult to go down to the Pampas XV in the final, but overall I gained a tremendous amount from the experience.
‘If I look at the situation as a whole, there have been many players waiting for the chance, or rather the privilege, to start for the Bulls. The facilities, the structures, the culture – this union is any player’s dream. I’m lucky to be part of it.’
Kruger’s glowing endorsement explains why he stayed in Pretoria for as long as he did. Matfield, Botha and Rossouw were all expected to move on after the 2011 World Cup and the Bulls would need a player of Kruger’s experience during a period of rebuilding. As a regular starter he would enjoy a platform to impress the new Springbok coach, but there was also a great opportunity to work under Matfield, the newest member of the Bulls’ crack coaching staff.
‘Victor helped me develop my decision-making,’ Kruger says. ‘When you get to this level, every player is an athlete and has the ball skills, so it’s good decisions that separate you from the rest of the pack. One thing flows into another in rugby, and a great try can be traced back to one good decision. You have to be making the right calls consistently if you want your team to get momentum and possibly even more success from there.’
One of the reasons Kruger didn’t get game time in the 2011 Super Rugby competition was because Matfield played every minute of that campaign. Viewed as an irreplaceable leader, Matfield was arguably even more important to the team due to his peerless powers at the lineout.
It has been one of the Bulls’ strengths during a golden era where they have won three Super Rugby trophies and two Currie Cups. If they want to succeed without Matfield, however, they will need somebody who can play a similar role at the set piece. Again, it’s a job Kruger doesn’t take lightly.
‘I travel to Loftus on a Monday knowing that I’m as well prepared as I can be, and that’s what gives me confidence. Rugby’s like business,’ he says, referring to his background in the business world. ‘When you are well prepared for a meeting you will go into that meeting with confidence. It’s the same in the build-up to a game. Sure, it’s a massive responsibility, but it’s one that I relish.’
Kruger also recalls his time in England as career altering in that he was forced to play a more confrontational game. During his stay at Northampton, the Saints won the European Challenge Cup. Competing against the best players in Europe on a weekly basis also pushed him to take his existing strengths to the next level.
And when the time came to make a decision about his future and a possible return to South Africa, there was only one team Kruger had in mind.
‘It was never a hard decision to rejoin the Bulls. If you are a forward and you want to push for a Test position, the Bulls pack is the place to be.’
The performance of the Pretoria-based side in the early rounds of the 2012 competition would have surprised those who felt that 2011 marked the end of an era for the once mighty side. Not only did they lose Matfield, Botha and Rossouw at the end of last season, but two other Bok forwards in Gary Botha and Gurthrö Steenkamp.
Most teams would have struggled after such a significant drain of their forward resources, but the results will confirm that the union still boasts quality in reserve. Forwards coach Johan van Graan says the hard-nosed showings against the Sharks and Cheetahs were expected, although he admits that he was very pleased with the results.
‘We are proud of our structures at the Bulls, and most of the forwards have come through the ranks. Juandré may not have originally come from the Bulls, but he has spent time in our systems and knows what we want to achieve on the field.
‘He took it well when he was told that he would sit behind those Bok locks. He used that time to soak it all in, to learn from the best in the business, and he is realising the benefit of that education now.’
Van Graan has also noted a marked improvement in Kruger’s game since he rejoined the Bulls in 2010.
‘He’s learned how to make the right call at the lineout and which tactic will work against a particular opponent. He’s also become an important figure at the kick-off. If you look at that first game against the Sharks, they tried to put us under pressure in the air, but Juandré was excellent.
‘The No 5 is also expected to hit a lot of rucks, it’s a big workload. That’s what some people didn’t realise about Victor; he was an excellent lineout manager but he also got through an impressive amount of work at the breakdown. Juandré has now taken on a similar role.
‘All in all I’d say he’s taken ownership of that No 5 jersey. I think Flip van der Merwe is in the same boat, having had to sit behind Bakkies and Danie for all those years. Both have made a big impact this season and complement each other well.’
There are always going to be great expectations when you’re replacing the best second-row combination of all time. Fortunately for the Bulls, Van der Merwe and Kruger have come into the 2012 season with experience as a unit. And long before they were packing down for the Bulls in the Currie Cup, the two locks enjoyed a healthy rivalry at the lower levels.
‘Flip and I have been great mates since our school days,’ says Kruger. ‘Our friendship goes all the way back to the U14s when I was at Paul Roos and he was at Grey College. We also played against each other at junior provincial level, Flip for Free State and me for Western Province. We’ve always enjoyed the challenge of playing against each other, and I’m now enjoying the privilege of being his team-mate at the Bulls. Our wives are also best friends.’
The Bulls are still in a rebuilding phase, but Kruger hopes to play an important role in a trophy-winning campaign, if not in 2012 then in the near future.
‘Somehow I’ve managed to miss all of the Bulls’ successes,’ he says. ‘I arrived here in 2008 when the Bulls didn’t do well in the Super 14, and was an unused substitute when we lost in the 2008 Currie Cup final to the Sharks. I played most of the games in the 2011 Currie Cup but lost in the semis. I want to change that; I want to win trophies with this Bulls side.’
Towards the end of Matfield’s career, Bekker had begun to close the gap between himself and the lineout legend. Bekker is the natural successor to Matfield at Test level, although it would seem that for the first time since Matfield’s retirement, another genuine contender has emerged.
As shown by his patience and determination to claim that coveted position at the Bulls, Kruger doesn’t give up. If the Bulls pack performs consistently, he may receive a call from Heyneke Meyer sooner rather than later.
‘The players realise that if the team does well in Super Rugby, individuals are going to be in line for higher honours,’ says Van Graan. ‘There’s still a long way to go, but if the forwards continue to play well, guys like Juandré and Flip will come into contention. You are playing against quality opponents every week, so if you can be consistent you can make a statement.’
– This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine.