Grounded George Kruis ruins the narrative of big, bad Saracens

His late arrival as England enforcer to entrepreneur, and all that comes in between

George Kruis is seemingly unfazed by the incoming game of the decade. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

George Kruis is seemingly unfazed by the incoming game of the decade. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

 

Topics to file George Kruis interview under: Black Monday. Stuart Lancaster. Felling Munster. Leinster revisited. Cannabis (minus the THC).

That about covers the 29 year old’s late blooming arrival as England enforcer to entrepreneur, and all that comes in between.

The initial professional iteration of Saracens was packaged as the ultimate show of force: Francois Pienaar being rugby’s first truly global icon (lifting a World Cup handed over by Nelson Mandela will do that) led the 2000 team that lost at Thomond Park the day brand Munster was launched.

The second iteration followed in 2008 when Nigel Wray sold half the club to South African billionaire Johann Rupert.

Brendan Venter - Springbok, occasional media savant, GP - was given free rein to do whatever it took to make Saracens what they have since become.

“It was Black Monday they ditched 20 or so players [EIGHTEEN],” Kruis remembers. “I was in the academy. It was my first season. Showed me how ruthless pro rugby can be. We had a lot of really good players but we’d sign someone big to try to save the season or the next year.

“The academy was its own little bubble. We were building our own thing, almost separately. We had a good group. Jamie George, Owen Farrell, Will Fraser, Jackson Wray, Myself. Mako came in later, so did Billy. Good, hard working players. We were a group that wanted to keep building and building.

“Along with some really good signings by Brendan, a lot of South Africans came over, and they bought into our growing culture.”

Capped by Stuart Lancaster in 2014, Kruis was unable to budge Joe Launchbury or Geoff Parling during England’s disastrous World Cup played out under Twickenham’s full glare.

Eddie Jones immediately flipped this failure into a Grand Slam. The most notable change was cementing of a new second row partnership with echoes of Ackford-Dooley, Bayfield-Johnson visible in Kruis and Maro Itoje.

George Kruis and Maro Itoje have formed a powerful secondrow partnership. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
George Kruis and Maro Itoje have formed a powerful secondrow partnership. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

“Someone had to take the fall. Stuart took it. By no means was he ever a bad coach. He set up a lot of what led to the Grand Slam in 2016 and the 18 wins in a row.

“He capped me so I’m very grateful. From what I’ve heard from the guys at Leinster he is doing great things there. Maybe he just more suited to that role.”

Because a coach needs to coach? “Yeah, he is coaching and dealing a lot less with the stuff a head coach must. I feel for them sometimes, they have to juggle so much.

“It’s nice seeing people who have gone through the mill come out the other end.”

Kruis says Stuart Lancaster set up a lot of what led to England’s Grand Slam in 2016. Photograph: Getty Images
Kruis says Stuart Lancaster set up a lot of what led to England’s Grand Slam in 2016. Photograph: Getty Images

Kruis, despite coming off an injury torn 2016/17, was selected to tour New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions. He started the first test. That’s how he learned about the Lancaster revival.

“You have certain impressions of people and then you go on tour with them and get to know them.”

People could easily form an impression of the stereotypical English lock. Mean, uncompromising. Turns out he’s an approachable, engaging man seemingly unfazed by the incoming game of the decade.

A career rise based on power yet slowed by injury can keep a person grounded. Kruis ruins the narrative of big, bad Saracens.

The club everyone loves to hate climbed from beneath the avalanche of open and secretive abuse in the wake of two controversies - Billy Vunipola’s Instagram message and investigations into breaching the Premiership salary cap - to pulverize Munster into submission.

It’s worth noting Saracens reacted to Vunipola’s social media stance by calling it “a serious error of judgement” that is “inconsistent with the values of the club and contravenes his contractual obligations” before “formally” warning their star player.

There was a clear the air Monday meeting before the Champions Cup semi-final at the Rioch Arena.

“In a club as tight as ours you got to talk about these sort of things but you also need to understand it is white noise,” said Kruis. “Our role as a rugby player is to go and produce a good game. We talked about it but off the back of that it’s about having the ability to block it out as well. We are fortunate enough to have good leaders within the team that can talk about these things in meetings and then bury them to focus on what’s at hand.”

We want to give an athlete an absolute green light: you can take this product and you won’t fail a drugs test

The self-titled wolf pack came out howling, surrounding Munster before Vunipola powered over for the killer second try.

BT Sport duly framed the England number eight as this heroic alpha but the performance did exhibit a club ruthlessly intent on atoning for losing to Leinster in last season’s quarter-final.

What happened at the Aviva stadium - in April 2018 and certainly not February 2019 when Kruis and Itoje were utterly dominant in white shirts - comes with a caveat; the backrow of Nick Isiekwe, Schalk Burger and Jackson Wray will be replaced by Michael Rhodes, Wray and Vunipola at St James Park.

“We got beaten that day, convincingly. We didn’t have the team we have now due to injuries and they were coming off the high of winning the Six Nations. They were very much in form. That plays a big part of these big games. But off the back of that game we were very convincing in the way we saw out the season.”

Saracens won the Premiership, again.

We conclude by revisiting Brian O’Driscoll’s pill popping revelations.

Pain killers and sleeping tablets, despite their gut wrenching and addictive threats, seem like an unavoidable reality for professional rugby players.

But Kruis and fellow Saracens lock Dominic Day offer an alternative way. They stress their “fourfiveCBD” company is a food supplement supplier not a medical treatment.

“CBD had come off the Wada banned list,” Kruis explained. “Dom had an operation a year ago. He used it coming off the back of it. A couple of weeks later I had an ankle operation. Dom suggested I should try it out. I was pleasantly surprised.”

People hear cannabis and make assumptions but the difference between CBD oil and THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that provides the high) is significant.

“We take a hemp plant and extract the THC and other cannabinoids so we produce a trace element of THC product. It’s an extract from cannabis but its packed full of CBD. We have been tested on it multiple times and we passed. We are fully aware nutritionist and medics wouldn’t recommend a product that has THC in it, even tiny trace levels, but we are very far down the line of getting a fully tested zero THC product from really good standard labs. Not only testing for THC but other contamination as well.

“A lot of work, a lot of hurdles and a fair bit of cash.

“We want to give an athlete an absolute green light: you can take this product and you won’t fail a drugs test. We should be the first in the UK with that.”

Sounds like an ideal career path post rugby?

“You retiring me?”

Gulp. Suddenly the room darkens as this giant shadow blocks out the sun, his eyes narrowing to slits. ‘Eh, no mate,’ I stammer, ‘you are at your peak, at the very time a player must plan for their future.’

“No, you’re right,” he smiles.

The popularity of CBD signals the return of hemp for mass consumption, something that has occurred ever since people and plants were acquainted. Type ‘Joe Rogan and CBD’ (Rogan’s being the most popular podcast on earth) into YouTube and trawl through the numerous athletes and celebrities espousing its health benefits as an alternative to the sledgehammer to the frontal cortex caused by ambien or valium.

“Personally I feel it helps my sleep. So much of recovery is about sleep. It’s a deeper sleep really. You take it and within five or 10 minutes, I wouldn’t say drowsy, but there is a definitely calmness to your body.”

Kruis has undergone six surgeries as a professional.

“As a sports man your job is to play at the weekend. It’s a skill in itself to manage your body.

“I guess your question is, is there a culture of taking a lot of pain killers? There is not pressure to do it but maybe self pressure so you can perform your role.”

There are apparent contradictions when viewing the club from outside and in.

Director of Rugby Mark McCall explained one method for making Saracens - which still lacks a support base to match its achievements - a more family inclusive environment was to open a creche at their St Albans City training facility.

“The club has a longer term view on things. People retire here rather than get pushed on. Which is a huge thing.

“We just started [SARACENS HIGH]school in Barnet to tighten up ties with the area. It’s about legacy. You mentioned the creche. They take us on pretty good trips. We don’t have to pack our boots. We went to Saint Anton [the ski resort in the Austrian alps] a month ago. Just to get to know each other a bit better. Massively cliché I know but it seems to be working. A few beers or doing stuff together. We connect a bit better and understand each other.”

Drowning out the white noise.

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