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England’s chief lineout strategist is more influential than many appreciate. George Kruis discusses aerial chess and brotherly love with Robert Kitson of The Guardian.
Here is an interesting stat with which to impress your friends. Name the player from this list with the highest winning percentage in an England Test jersey: Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola, Dylan Hartley, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, George Kruis, Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell or Manu Tuilagi? The chances are they will require numerous guesses before they correctly answer ‘Kruis’.
Even the man himself finds it slightly hard to believe. “I didn’t know that,” admits the self-effacing Saracens lock forward. “It’s probably because I’ve been injured when they’ve lost a few.”
The facts, though, suggest otherwise. Ahead of these Quilter Internationals, Kruis had tasted victory in 19 of his 25 England Tests, he made that 20 in 26 after the weekend. Of the six defeats, only two came in matches he started, both against Ireland. When you factor in the consistent success his club Saracens have enjoyed domestically and in Europe over a similar period, his understated influence is further underlined.
Every team he represents seems to benefit from a touch of Kruis control. The 28 year old has spent many hours perfecting his lineout trade, having honed his skills under the tutelage of Steve Borthwick and England’s erstwhile defence coach Paul Gustard.
His team-mate Richard Wigglesworth once compared him to a human sponge, such is his capacity to soak up information and, occasionally, good-natured abuse from his colleagues. “He is extremely lovable and a bit dopey,” explained Wigglesworth. “For that reason, he gets a lot of stick but he takes it unbelievably well.It’s almost his niche: he soaks it all up. But he’s like that with information, too. It’s an underestimated quality. It’s easy to work hard in the gym but to listen and learn off people and get better each year is a skill.”
'A beanpole teenager'
There is more to Kruis, in short, than meets the eye. As a beanpole teenager in Surrey he played on the wing until the age of 14 and did not attract county recognition until he was 17.
He was overlooked by Harlequins and when he pitched up at the Saracens academy he was initially deemed too slight at 92kg. “When I first saw him he was a skinny lad with a big nose,” confirmed Gustard. Within a year, though, he had put on three stone and now tips the scales at 115kg. In addition to his quiet intelligence – he has a business management degree – he has always had a serious appetite for self-improvement."When I first saw him he was a skinny lad with a big nose."
It has not been an entirely smooth ride; injuries have hampered his career at various times and he has now undergone two ankle operations, the most recent ruling him out of this year’s summer tour to South Africa. “It’s all better now,” he confirms. “Last time I was hoping it was better. You maybe pretend to yourself a little bit but it was sore. For the first three weeks this time I was thinking: ‘Is this really fixed?’ but I’ve seen some really good change in it. I’ve been well managed by both England and Saracens and I’m grateful for that. I feel fully refreshed now.”
Not many players can effectively operate on one leg at the highest level and still keep on winning. Kruis knows how it feels to be dropped – “There are normally reasons: sometimes it’s form, sometimes it’s injury and often they’re linked,” – but he invariably bounces back.
The 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand was a good example; having been picked to start the first Test he was subsequently replaced by Itoje but still remembers the trip with affection. “It was a great experience and I think I played well coming into the Test series. I just had one game where I didn’t play well which happened to be the first Test. But I don’t judge myself on that game. There were plenty of decent ones earlier that season and the season before.”
Sixteen months later he is keenly looking forward to another game of aerial chess with the outstanding All Black pairing of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, arguably the most formidable combination in the world. “It’s probably their consistency that stands out. They don’t have too many bad games and they work well together. Good second rows are greater than the sum of their parts. It’s a shared responsibility.”
He is also a firm believer that lineouts are an increasingly crucial area of the ever-changing modern game. “It is a key platform. Referees are pushing for lineouts to be a fast part of the game and you’ve got to go with the way rugby is going. But some teams like to slow it down and implement their driving game on you. You know opposing sides are always looking at you and you’ve got to be doing your homework, too.”
Brothers in arms
It clearly helps that very little fazes Kruis, whose father, Leo, hails from Canada. Not much ruffles him, aside from bad drivers, and a good deal of his leisure time is either spent with his family or looking after Thor, his much-loved Vizsla dog. “My family are big for me. I’ve got two really supportive older brothers, Henry and William. One plays a little bit in Hong Kong and the other plays for Dorking third XV. I can’t say they’re too much of a rugby inspiration but they’re inspirations in other ways.”"I can’t say they’re too much of a rugby inspiration but they’re inspirations in other ways."
Kruis has certainly come a long way since his own formative days in Dorking RFC’s junior sides, when he played alongside the Wasps prop Jake Cooper-Woolley and the Surrey and England cricketer Jason Roy. His next challenge is to cement a 2019 Rugby World Cup spot and, if possible, further improve his already impressive record in an England jersey. “It really isn’t down to me, it’s the team you play for,” he protests. “In a position like mine it has to be team first.” His stats, even so, tell the story.