Uncompromising former Bok hard man Bismarck du Plessis returns from France with a new perspective on life, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Du Plessis came off the bench in the second half of the European Challenge Cup final to make a series of game-changing hits and steals. Indeed, who could forget the turnover won by the former Springbok hooker in the closing stages that effectively clinched an 18-17 win for Montpellier.
It should have been a moment to celebrate for Du Plessis and his teammates, who had endured a tough season on and off the field. What happened next, however, brought his six-year stint in France to a premature end and ultimately hastened his return to South Africa.
When SA Rugby magazine contacted Du Plessis in the days after the final, he revealed that Montpellier were releasing as many as 14 players from their contracts. The news came as a shock to everyone in South Africa, as Du Plessis’ game-breaking skills and his big-match temperament had been evident in the Challenge Cup final.
He was rushed into saying goodbye to friends and teammates. Du Plessis later penned a message to the players and fans, wishing them well for the future. As much as it hurt to leave the club in unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances, he went out of his way to pay his respects to a place he had called home for six life-altering years.
When SA Rugby magazine catches up with Du Plessis again, he’s back on the family farm in Bethlehem and is in the process of serving breakfast to his four-year-old twins. As the conversation moves towards rugby, you get the feeling the evergreen 37-year-old isn’t done with the game just yet.
“You obviously can’t compare that Challenge Cup title to the successes I had at the 2007 World Cup, the 2009 series against the British & Irish Lions, the 2009 Tri-Nations and the Currie Cup wins with the Sharks. But it certainly meant something to me.
“There have been many great players who didn’t win a single title over the course of their careers. I’m fortunate to have won a few and I’m grateful to have finished my time in France on a high. I look back at my time in Montpellier as an important period in my life,’ he adds, before confirming that he gained a lot more than two-title winning accolades with the club.
“I experienced a lot of new things. I encountered people who had different philosophies, and that in turn forced me to open my eyes and see things a bit differently. I grew a lot over there.”
In late-2015, SA Rugby magazine interviewed Du Plessis after he signed a lucrative contract with Montpellier. At the time, he seemed reluctant to leave a Sharks set-up that had been his home for a decade. In the end, the experience abroad did Du Plessis and his family a world of good.
“I’ve always wanted to be a one-club man. It was really difficult to leave the Sharks, who were like my family at that stage. I’m a very loyal person and I could have spent the rest of my career in Durban.
“My perception changed overseas. Montpellier is a lekker place to live. The weather is mild and the community is tight. I threw myself into the challenge of learning French – myself and my family are pretty fluent now – and I worked hard to experience the French culture and those of other nationalities.
“That’s what you don’t realise before you make the trip to Europe: you are going to mix with top players from England, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and Georgia as well as the elite players in France. They all have different takes on life as well as rugby, and you cannot help but benefit from those interactions.
“I look back now and realise how important that experience was for me. I had a pretty narrow view of the world before I left South Africa.”
Du Plessis is one of the most abrasive players to have represented the Springboks in the professional era. He played the last of his 79 Tests in the 2015 World Cup third-place playoff against Argentina.
When he arrived in France, he was forced to adapt to a new brand of physicality and a new approach to rugby culture. The passion for the game in that part of the world is, according to many foreigners who have experienced it, unique.
“You travel to small villages and towns like Brive, Castres and La Rochelle, and it feels like the whole population is packed into the stadium,” he says. “As a player, you draw energy from that. It reminded me about my early days at the Sharks, when we used to play against the Bulls and Stormers in front of massive crowds at Kings Park.”
Du Plessis has various business interests that he intends to pursue in the near future. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that one particular venture has a distinctive rugby flavour.
“I’m hoping that our wine brand, the Rugby Field Vineyard, will go from strength to strength in places like Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, France, Australia, Argentina and New Zealand. The basic idea involves cultivating a vineyard in the shape of a rugby field in each location.
“The wine varies from place to place. We had Grenache in France, we will have Malbec in Argentina, a Pinotage in South Africa and a white varietal somewhere in New Zealand.”
Is he completely done with rugby? Tom Brady (43) won yet another Super Bowl title earlier this year, while South African fans may recall that Victor Matfield and Schalk Brits were 38 in their final seasons for the Springboks. Du Plessis shouldn’t allow his advanced age to deter him from fulfilling his rugby ambitions.
He warms to the subject when he’s asked to comment on some of his former teammates, who continue to excel on the domestic stage. Ruan Pienaar has been a revelation for the Cheetahs since returning from France. Morne Steyn was recently recalled to the Springbok squad after producing a series of match-winning performances for the Bulls.
“Ruan, Morne and myself played in the same Free State side in the 2002 Craven Week. Willem Alberts is the same age of me and was at the Lions academy around that time.
“We all walked a similar road in our careers. Three of us were at the Sharks and all of us were at the Boks at one stage. It’s great to see them still performing for the South African sides.
“I’ve been blessed to go through my career with relatively few injuries and to play for so many great teams for a long period. My fitness regime and my diet have played a role in that,” he says.
“I’ve been very strict with my body and when I’ve played I’ve tried to maintain a high physical standard. You can’t back down just because you’re a bit older. In a sense, I’m grateful I was pushed so hard in my early days at Free State and the Sharks. I have tried to keep pushing the limits over the course of my career.”
Du Plessis certainly made an impression the last time the Lions toured South Africa. So much has been made about the physicality of these matches, and one of the great enforcers agrees that the collisions in these fixtures are on a completely different level.
“Back in 2009, we demolished the Lions at the set pieces in the first Test at Kings Park. I’ll never forget how they stood up in the second game at Loftus Versfeld, though. Morne slotted that penalty at the end to win the series, and I remember walking off the field with my hands in the air. The next day I felt like I’d been in a car crash. It was one of the most physical games of my life.
“It’s the pinnacle for a South African rugby player. It’s hard enough to make the Springbok squad for the World Cup, which is every four years. You need some luck, with regards to injuries and indeed the timing in your career, to make the cut for a Lions series that takes place once every 12 years.
“And once you play against them, it’s like nothing you’ve experienced before,” he adds. “Four unions competing as one … It’s a massive honour for those players to represent the Lions, but also an honour for teams like the Boks to play against the famous side.”
It’s been nearly six years since Du Plessis last represented South Africa. Naturally, he is disappointed he hasn’t added to his 79-Test tally since the 2015 World Cup.
In 2018, Du Plessis was selected for the Springbok squad before a three-Test series against England. SA Rugby later confirmed that the hooker had been withdrawn from the team due to injury, although a few sources suggested that there were problems regarding his release from Montpellier.
Coach Rassie Erasmus wanted to bring Du Plessis in as a mentor to the younger front-row forwards. When the veteran was unavailable, Erasmus called on another senior statesman in Schalk Brits. The Saracens star joined the squad and was later part of the 2019 World Cup triumph.
“Everybody wishes they could have been part of that journey,” Du Plessis says. “Rassie and I go back a long way, as we played for Free State together in the early to mid-2000s. We know each other well. What happened in 2018 … it was out of my hands. I never lost my desire to play for the Boks, though.
“I played a lot of Tests for South Africa, so I can’t really complain. But did I know the game against Argentina in 2015 would be my last? Definitely not. That’s why you can never take anything for granted. That’s the advice I would give to the younger players of today, to play every game as if it’s your last and to cherish every moment.”
Du Plessis has followed the Springbok team’s rise over the 2018 and 2019 seasons with interest. He celebrated the World Cup title win like every other South African rugby fan.
Now that he’s returned, he’s witnessed the impact of that ground-breaking victory first-hand.
“Bethlehem is really struggling with Covid-19. That said, people haven’t lost hope. The residents have taken strength and inspiration from successful sport teams like the Boks.
“I went into town recently to enrol my kids at a local school. I noticed a lot of people wearing Springbok jerseys – and I know that some of these people weren’t fans before 2019.
“When I got to the school, I saw a bunch of kids wearing replicas. They came running up to me, wanting to speak about rugby. It was fantastic.
“I’m not sure what’s in the future for me as a player. What I know for a fact is that I will always support the green and gold. I know how hard it is to become a Springbok and I know how hard it is to stay a Springbok. I have a lot of respect for whoever wears that jersey.”
BISMARCK’S INCREDIBLE JOURNEY:
2005 – Moves from Free State to the Sharks, wins the U21 World Cup with South Africa.
2007 – Test debut vs Australia. Wins the 2007 World Cup with the Springboks.
2008 – Wins the Currie Cup with the Sharks.
2009 – Wins the series against the British & Irish Lions with the Springboks. Wins the Tri-Nations.
2010 – Wins the Currie Cup with the Sharks.
2011 – Second World Cup, in New Zealand.
2012 – Super Rugby finalist with the Sharks.
2013 – Wins the Currie Cup with the Sharks.
2014 – Leads the Sharks in the Super Rugby tournament. The team becomes the first South African side to beat the Crusaders in Christchurch.
2015 – Third World Cup, in England.
2016 – Wins the European Challenge Cup with Montpellier.
2018 – Selected for the Springbok squad, later withdraws.
2021 – Wins the European Challenge Cup with Montpellier.
Photo: Getty Images