‘It brings a lump to your throat’: let’s honour 1995’s fallen Bok heroes
The deaths of Kitch Christie‚ Ruben Kruger‚ Joost van der Westhuizen‚ James Small and Chester Williams are so keenly felt because they are indelibly etched into SA’s consciousness.
They contributed richly to the Springboks’ success in the 1995 Rugby World Cup (RWC) and their teammates still mourn their loss.
“It is very sad. We lost Ruben and Kitch way back. More recently Joost‚ Chester and James‚” said Springbok tighthead prop Balie Swart.
“We were a very tight group. We shared a very special time in a very special time for the country. This (their death) is the kind of thing that can bend you. It brings a lump to your throat just talking about it‚” said an emotional Swart.
Having guided the Boks to RWC glory‚ Christie‚ who had battled leukaemia since 1979‚ took ill in 1996.
He was due to coach Transvaal in the inaugural Super Rugby tournament while still holding the reins of the national team. His illness forced him to quit both jobs, but he responded so well to treatment that he accepted the head coaching job at the Bulls the next year.
Then his body deteriorated again and he was hospitalised.
It was then that Blue Bulls president Hentie Serfontein‚ in Christie’s words, “fired me like a dog”.
Christie succumbed to leukaemia in April 1998, aged 58.
Van der Westhuizen’s zest for life was undiminished
Fiercely competitive, Van der Westhuizen was blue collar and blue blood in equal measure.
He held pride and valour dear. He went on to captain the Springboks at the 1999 RWC and he was a senior member of the squad that travelled to the 2003 instalment in Australia. He played in 89 Tests between 1993 and 2003.
He was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 2011 and though it eroded him physically, Van der Westhuizen’s spirit and zest for life remained undiminished.
Van der Westhuizen died in February 2017, two weeks short of his 46th birthday.
Kruger was ‘silent assassin’
Ruben Kruger possessed warrior-like qualities. He was a fearless flank with an exemplary work rate. There was nothing flashy about Kruger or the way he played.
Often the toil of this silent assassin went unnoticed, but his contribution to the Bok cause in the World Cup was rewarded with the SA Rugby player of the year award in 1995.
Kruger was unaware of the destruction happening within. He blacked out during a game in 2000 and resultant tests revealed he had a brain tumour. He had surgery to remove it, but it resurfaced. In 2009 he was hospitalised and doctors removed 90% of a growth said to have been the size of a man’s fist.
Kruger battled the disease for a decade, dying in January 2010, aged 39.
Small and Lomu
James Small‚ the rock star of the group‚ had the unenviable task of man-marking All Blacks juggernaut Jonah Lomu in the 1995 final. With a little help from his friends‚ he stood up to the task.
By then the much-celebrated rebel had left his mark.
He was a player full of verve and vigour on and off the field, and scored 20 tries in 47 Tests between 1992 and 1997.
Small died of a heart attack in February 2019, shortly after his 50th birthday.
Williams’s unexpected death
Chester Williams, too, departed unexpectedly.
The only black player to feature in that 1995 RWC group‚ Williams made a dramatic entry into the tournament for the suspended Pieter Hendriks when he scored four tries against Western Samoa in the quarterfinals.
Crippling knee injuries would break his momentum‚ but Williams remained a wholehearted contributor to the Bok cause until his retirement from Test rugby in 2000.
He died of a heart attack in September last year‚ just before he was set to travel to the RWC in Japan.