It is because they are etched so deeply in SA’s collective rugby consciousness that the deaths of Kitch Christie‚ Ruben Kruger‚ Joost van der Westhuizen‚ James Small and Chester Williams are so keenly felt.
They all contributed richly to the Springboks’ success in the 1995 Rugby World Cup 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 deaths] is the kind of thing that can bend you. It brings a lump to your throat just talking about it‚” said an increasingly emotional Swart.
Having guided the Boks to World Cup 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. However‚ 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 following year.
But again his body deteriorated and he was admitted to hospital.
It was there where Blue Bulls president Hentie Serfontein‚ in Christie’s words, “fired me like a dog”.
Christie succumbed to leukaemia in April 1998 aged 58.
Kruger possessed warrior-like qualities. He was a fearless flank with an exemplary work rate. There was nothing flashy about him or the way he played.
The toil of this silent assassin often 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.
Much like the way he played, Kruger was unaware of the unobtrusive destruction happening within. He blacked out during a game in 2000 and resultant tests revealed he had a brain tumour. He had surgery for its removal but it resurfaced. In 2009 he went into hospital where doctors removed 90% of a tumour said to be the size of a man’s fist.
Having battled the disease for a decade, Kruger died in January 2010 aged 39.
Small‚ the rock star of the group‚ had the unenviable task of the man marking All Blacks juggernaut Jonah Lomu in the 1995 final. He‚ with a little help from his friends‚ 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 had scored 20 tries in his 47 Tests between 1992 and 1997.
Small died of a heart attack in February 2019 shortly after his 50th birthday.
Williams too departed unexpectedly.
The only black player to feature in that 1995 Springbok Rugby World Cup 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.
Though crippling knee injuries would break his momentum‚ 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 2019‚ just before he was set to travel to the World Cup in Japan.