George Kruis has played precisely 122 minutes of international rugby, so whatever the England hierarchy may say about the young Saracens lock – and they have talked about him incessantly, especially the red-rose forwards coach Graham Rowntree, who might have been mistaken for his agent during the autumn series at Twickenham – it would be stretching a point to describe him as a fully-fledged Test player. Yet he has already reached a crossroads of sorts, because no one is quite sure when his 123rd minute might materialise.
“Things are heating up and it’s only going to get hotter,” Kruis said this week as he reflected on his situation vis-à-vis the forthcoming Six Nations campaign, which begins with a particularly fiery trip to Wales early in February. He was referring to the fact that two established England second-rows, Joe Launchbury of Wasps and Leicester’s Geoff Parling, are likely to be in contention for a place in the national squad following injury. Once their availability is confirmed, the red-rose boilerhouse will be the most mind-bogglingly competitive area of the team.
Let us assume that Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, names four specialist locks in his championship party. Let us also assume that Courtney Lawes and his ton-of-bricks tackling will be considered an essential ingredient – the Northampton man remains the most destructive bone-on-muscle man in the English game – and that Dave Attwood of Bath did more than enough over the autumn to justify his place in the party. We can make one further assumption: that Lancaster will pick Launchbury, around whom he has spent much of 2014 building the pack.
Which leaves Kruis, a 24-year-old rookie without an international start to his name, taking on Parling, a Test Lion as well as one of Lancaster’s go-to men in hard times, for the remaining slot. If this prospect fazes the Saracen in the slightest, he is remarkably good at concealing it.
“This season, all the talk has been about the England coaches picking on form,” he said. “I don’t think any player can ask for more than that, and if I continue to go well at club level and train well when I’m in the international environment, I’m confident I’ll benefit from that policy. No, I didn’t get a start during the autumn, but I played in every game off the bench and the coaches gave me enough minutes to show what I could do. There’s a hell of a lot to learn, but by the end of the four matches I was reasonably happy with my contribution.”
Kruis fits the mould of the modern-day England lock: he is no giant – although at 6ft 6in and well over 18st, he is unlikely to have sand kicked in his face while relaxing on the beach – but his Launchbury-style athleticism, the authority of his line-out work and the sheer volume of “involvements” to which he lays claim over the course of 80 minutes mark him out as a high-quality forward in the making. Yet in another sense, he does not fit the mould at all.
He describes his ascent to England status as a “classic progression”: a fistful of Under-20 caps, a first-team breakthrough at Saracens and a run with England’s second-string Saxons team led to a Test debut against the All Blacks last month. But there was no early identification of his talent, no Yellow Brick Road through the age-group and academy structures that produce so many of today’s Premiership professionals.
A man of Surrey, he was introduced to the union game by his brother William, who was playing for Dorking. Kruis followed suit at the tender age of seven ... and was still playing for the club well past his 18th birthday. “There was a bit of a family issue about the whole Dorking thing,” he said. “I don’t come from a big rugby background: my father, a Canadian, loves the game but doesn’t understand the rules; my mother follows me everywhere – she made a 10-hour round trip to watch me in the Sale game last week – and just supports me in the way mothers do. But my grandfather on my mum’s side was a founder member of Effingham RFC, and he was none too happy about where I was playing my rugby. I think there must be a local rivalry there somewhere.”
It was his showing at county age-group level – he represented London and the South-east – that gave him momentum and from there he was offered a trial by Saracens. “I knew someone who knew Nigel Wray [the Saracens chairman and financial cornerstone], so that helped: a good bit of networking, you might say,” Kruis recalled with a grin. “But seriously, it’s probably an encouragement to kids who don’t make it into those first representative squads at 13 or 14 to know that there’s another way into the professional game. I didn’t make county until halfway through my Under-17 season.”
Once at Saracens, he found himself under the wing of the England captain, Steve Borthwick – just about the best place on God’s Earth for a young second-row forward with ideas of making the best of himself. “It was brilliant, right from the start,” Kruis said. “There were a group of young players – Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Jackson Wray, Will Fraser – all trying to make names for ourselves: they still call us the ‘Class of ’08’. And with Steve there looking after us ... well, I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor or a more massive influence. In his fields of greatest expertise, the line-out and general leadership, he was something else. He was completely meticulous, he always wanted to help and he never let up. He’ll be a world-class coach, 100 per cent.
“When Steve retired at the end of last season, someone was going to be asked to fill some very big boots. Yet the succession planning was excellent. Alastair Hargreaves [the Springbok lock] has performed really well in the captain’s role – so well, in fact, that it doesn’t seem as though too much has changed. We’re still a very close-knit squad and we’re still determined to go after the big prizes.”
Talking of which, has the pain of last May – defeat by Toulon in the Heineken Cup final, defeat by Northampton in the last second of extra time in the Premiership showpiece just seven days later – finally eased? Kruis did not experience the bitterness of it all at first hand, having mangled a knee ligament just when he needed to stay fit, but as Borthwick said his fond farewells to the club, he was hurting as much as anyone.
“That injury cost me three months of important rugby and I was pretty disappointed,” Kruis confessed. “I’d been targeting a place on the England tour of New Zealand – I felt I had a shot, having just played for the Saxons – but what really got to me was missing those finals. You set your sights on something and work towards it for months on end ... and suddenly it’s gone.
“So I had to sit there and watch those games – and yes, it was painful. We felt we were properly beaten by Toulon in the European final, that they’d played better than us, but Northampton? That was different. We felt we’d deserved to win. And to think we’d absolutely smashed the league campaign and won it well. It was tough to take.”
But life goes on. Saracens will have a decent chance of European Champions Cup knockout qualification if they beat Sale in north London today and it will be a surprise of serious proportions if they finish outside the top four of the Premiership. And Kruis is making a serious case for Six Nations inclusion.
“It’s been a great few weeks,” he said. “When England played Samoa last month, 25 blokes from Dorking came to watch me. How good is that? And they had a fun time, too: they even managed to find their way into one of the corporate lounges!” Good for them. And good for Kruis.Reuse content