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Q&A – George Kruis: Nothing in my contract says I’m coming back to Saracens

George Kruis

England lock George Kruis explains the mechanics of his move to Japanese Top League outfit Panasonic Wild Knights and tells NEALE HARVEY why Saracens still have a bright future.    

What’s your current status with Saracens, when are you due to leave for Japan and will you be sad to go without saying proper goodbyes?

Like most contracts in the UK, mine finished last month and I’m due in Japan in November, but I have a down period now which is not the end of the world. Since finishing up at Saracens they’ve been good in allowing me to keep using the gym and their physios, so because I’ve been in training it’s not like I’ve been cut off or anything. I see the guys throughout the week and will do so over the next three months, so that’s been alright and there’s no real sob story.

Any chance of you being re-registered to play for Sarries again this season?

I’d obviously love to be involved in Europe after putting some graft into helping us get to the Champions Cup quarter-finals and it will be a really great occasion against Leinster in Dublin, but it’s looking unlikely at the moment.

When did the idea of moving abroad first seriously enter your head?

A couple of years ago, I spoke to people I needed to just to keep them in the know over my future plans. First, there was the opportunity of going to the World Cup in Japan, but then off the back of that I wanted a year or two to explore the wider world. The things that have been happening at Saracens probably made it harder because you have a lot of feelings towards your club, but I made a decision to give it a go and in my first couple of weeks in Japan at the World Cup I just thought it was a class place and I really liked it. I asked my agent to have a look around and we got some feedback on the league, so it’s something I’ve planned for and things have worked out alright.

What appealed to you most about going to Japan?

It’s something completely different. I’ve been to Hong Kong, where my brother lives with his family, but Japan is different again – different culture, food and set-up to anything I’ll have experienced before, which for me is very attractive. I’ve been in England for 30 years and have been at Saracens for 12 of those, so as much as I love the routine and the place it’s quite important for me to do something else at this stage of my career. If I finished my career and had not tried something like this, I’d definitely have had regrets later on. It’s a big call but it’s something I hope will pay off in terms of personal development on and off the field. I spoke to James Haskell and Geoff Parling, both of whom played in Japan, so I know what I’m getting into.

How did you settle on joining the Panasonic Wild Knights, who are based where exactly?

It’s in a place called Ota, which is an hour and a half outside central Tokyo – rural enough but also still pretty easy to get into the big city if I and my partner want to go there. I wanted to play for a club that was competitive – and Panasonic are definitely that – and I also liked the fact that Robbie Deans was their head coach because from what I’ve heard it’s important to have a top figure within your set-up as it makes things a bit easier. I did a fair bit of research and spoke to Robbie and quizzed him on the benefits and drawbacks and just tried to be as open as possible, at the end of which Panasonic seemed to be the best fit. I’m really looking forward to playing some good rugby for them and with six or seven of the Top League sides based in and around Tokyo, there’ll be quite a few guys I know over there which will be another plus.

Hadleigh Parkes is joining you at Panasonic and others like Freddie Burns and some Gloucester boys are going to Japan as well. Why is it becoming a destination of choice?

There will definitely have been a reaction to some deals falling through because of the whole Covid-19 thing, but the World Cup was also good for northern hemisphere teams like England and Wales and would have dragged a few other people like myself into wanting to experience the place more. Apart from the final whistle in the World Cup final, I really enjoyed the whole experience last year and it’s a bit of a no-brainer to go back. A lot of other people are probably thinking the same and you’re seeing a lot of top Kiwis and Australians in the Top League as well.

How was that World Cup experience for you?

Like I said, the final whistle was disappointing but when you look at the tournament as a whole, it was definitely out there as a proper experience. It was evident to me that rugby in Japan is growing and there’s a massive public appetite for it. It was a really well-run tournament and they put on a spectacle, which is why attendances at this year’s Top League matches were averaging over 11,000 before Covid-19 struck. There’s been a real boost from the World Cup and it’ll be exciting to go there because players want to play big games in front of big crowds.

Have you been able to put your finger on what went wrong for England against South Africa?

South Africa had a nice simple game plan and they executed it really well. We couldn’t deal with it on the day, but it’s not something I want to dwell on because, ultimately, the whole experience was unbelievable and we achieved some pretty good things. England are still in a good place.

Your England career will now be on hold, what did Eddie Jones say about that?

I’ve always been very clear with him over my intentions and the ball will be in his court whenever I get back. Wherever I’m playing rugby, it’s my job to play the best I can and he’s always provided me with honest feedback, so he’s been a good help there. From my perspective, the desire to play for England will never stop. I’m only 30 so I’ve just got to keep training and playing hard.

Highs and lows: George Kruis in action for England in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final. Getty Images

Do you still harbour hopes of making next year’s Lions tour?

I’ve spoken to Warren Gatland as well so I’ve got to play really well and hope there’s a spot there. I’m fully aware that going to Japan will probably dent my chances, but I’ve been nice and clear with telling Warren my plans and we’ll take it from there.

Having done your research, what do you expect of Japanese rugby?

The style of play is very different – plenty of running, quick taps and not quite the same emphasis on the set-piece. It’s more free-flowing so it’s an opportunity to experience a new way of looking at the game. There was a massive emphasis on the home nation doing well at the World Cup so there were obvious benefits there and they’ve followed through with the kind of coaches and players they’ve recruited since. Along with a very much improved Japan team, it means the standard is right up there.

Back to Saracens, how sad are you to be leaving with the club facing relegation to the Championship after all the salary cap shenanigans?

It’s really disappointing and in some parts hard to take, but the whole journey with Saracens has been phenomenal with the way the club’s treated us and all the hard work on and off the field. It’s been a proper journey and while there are arguments for and against what’s happened that I don’t really want to get into, in the big European games against the dominant Irish and French teams who have a good amount of buying power behind them, there have been some really hard-fought wins and Championships in there. What’s happened has happened but from my side I know how much effort went in to getting all those trophies and the memories will always be there. That’s something I’m immensely grateful for and I feel nothing but good towards the club. I wouldn’t want to play for another Premiership club because they’ve been brilliant for me.

Does the fact guys like Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Jamie George, the Vunipola brothers and Jackson Wray are staying auger well for Sarries’ future?

I’d say so. They’re players you’d want to keep and they’re all guys who’ve come up through the ranks, work incredibly hard and are the core of the team. But I also think there’s a brilliant opportunity for a load of younger lads as well. With the number of high-class players at the club the younger guys have been biding their time, but they’ll get their chance now and it’ll be really exciting to see them get an opportunity. The ball is in their hands, so to speak, and they’ve got to rise to the challenge.

What do you make of the two young locks, Joel Kpoku and Callum Hunter-Hill?

It’s a brilliant chance for them. With myself and Will Skelton moving on they’ll get loads of games under their belts at the back end of this season and all of next year in the Championship, so they’ll go through the whole learning curve of taking responsibility alongside some really good players as well. They’re great players who have achieved so much already, so with the great coaching they’ll get and with the older heads who are sticking around in the environment, they’ve got great potential and I’m looking forward to seeing how they progress. It’s not just those guys, though, a lot of people are coming of age, which for us as a club is massively exciting. It’s a good testament to our academy programmes and good for England that we’re producing another good crop of hungry players looking to impress. We’re losing a few players in the short term like Ben Earl, Max Malins and Nick Isiekwe, but they’ll come back even better for their experiences.

Ironically, given the huge logjam of fixtures now awaiting Premiership guys, will Saracens’ relegation actually work to the benefit of top Saracens stars like Farrell, Itoje and George in a Lions year?

I imagine so. Everyone’s having a really good break at the moment because of Covid-19 and people will have kept themselves fit and be injury-free, but with an eye-watering amount of games to come our guys will be playing less in the Championship and then building into the international periods, so there’s a decent argument that they’re putting themselves in a very good place.

Taking everything into account, there are 56 rounds of Premiership, European and Test rugby to be fitted in BEFORE the Lions tour. Do you fear for player welfare?

That’s an incredible amount of rugby so they need to get it right in terms of the workload. Whether there are league or financial issues, there’s the potential for player welfare to take a back seat. However, I believe there’ll be a greater understanding throughout the league that you might have to field a younger team at some points and build towards certain scenarios and peaks. But it’s going to be a pretty packed schedule and there was a very good piece of work done on the back of the 2017 Lions tour of all the injuries. It was a pretty substantial list, so if there are player welfare concerns you’d like to think people will have looked into that and take it into account. It is incumbent on the clubs and international teams to manage their players well.

Do you believe going to Japan will enhance your own longevity in the game, given their league season is much shorter and sharper?

Absolutely. The fact I’ve had effectively three months off and will have another three months of conditioning now will ensure that I’m at my physical peak prior to going to Japan. This time has allowed me to freshen up a lot. I’ve also had stuff going on outside rugby business-wise that’s enabled me to refresh my mind as much as my body. I know it’s going to be seven months of hard graft when I get over to Japan but this period has allowed me to relax a little bit.

Sam Whitelock
New culture: George Kruis will play for Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan, the same club who Sam Whitelock signed for after the 2019 World Cup. Koki Nagahama/Getty Images

CBD Four Five, the cannabidiol oil company you run with former Saracens colleague Dominic Day, is a couple of years old now, so how’s it going?

Really well. Dom and I are both very committed to it and have given it a good go. Our products are being stocked by Boots now and it’s provided a massive learning curve for both of us and the four people we now employ. We’ve got a good young team and I find it really interesting to see how much we can take from sport and put into our business. We’re building on the connections we have in rugby and while it’s been very hard work at times, I find the business world really stimulating and CBD Four Five is constantly developing and never sleeps. I’m far from done playing yet but it’s definitely something I’ll continue pursuing post-rugby.

How has Covid-19 affected your CBD trade?

Covid has actually been good in terms of e-commerce and online, but much tougher for in-store for retailers like Boots. It’s been a mixed bag but we’re looking really positive and we’re just ready to enter our second phase with some really exciting projects on the go, not just in CBD. It’s nothing too crazy but we’re hoping to branch out within the wellness market with an aim to bring professional athletes together with our investment and the networks we’re creating. It’s a project we’ve been thinking about over the last five months and the lockdown has allowed us to accelerate it.

Do you think you might expand your business empire into Japan?

I’ve got some contacts there and it might be something we’ll explore. Being involved in the business world has really grabbed my attention and in rugby we’ve got a good opportunity to open a few more doors and learn from people who’ve done unbelievable things in their lives. Something I’ve found interesting is how many people are very willing to give up their time and talk you through their experiences, and the amount you can learn from that is incredible really.

How long do you plan to be in Japan, and will you return to Saracens when you’re done?

It’s a one-year-plus-one deal with Panasonic which gives both sides flexibility to make decisions. Everything I’ve seen from them is positive but it just means I can go there and experience Japan and then make a decision on the second year off the back of that. As for Saracens, there’s nothing in my contract about going back.

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