Bismarck’s built for battle

Bismarck du Plessis has finally travelled to a World Cup as the Springboks’ first-choice hooker, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Bismarck du Plessis tells SA Rugby magazine why he loves this game. He speaks passionately about his 11-year stint with the Sharks, which recently came to what he believes was a premature end. His voice takes on a tone of reverence when he refers to the Springbok jersey, a privilege that was so nearly taken away in 2012. And he’s at his most animated, his most spirited, when he talks about his exploits on the battlefield.

There have been times when he has overstepped the mark, when that aggression has led to penalties, cards and even the odd suspension. But more often than not, Du Plessis has inspired the Boks and Sharks to game-shaping performances at the collisions and breakdowns.

That desire to dominate at the point of contact has defined him for more than a decade. It’s an attitude that has served him well, and one he isn’t about to change in the lead-up to the 2015 World Cup, the most important tournament of his career.

‘The way I see it, rugby players are modern-day gladiators,’ Du Plessis says. ‘We leave absolutely everything out on the field. We live for this battle, and then afterwards, when the battle is done, there are no hard feelings. I’ve had some particularly brutal clashes against opponents like Kieran Read, Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen. But we always catch up afterwards. That’s just the way it is.

‘I’m never going to shy away from confrontation,’ he says. ‘I’m never going to change the way I approach the game. I play this game for respect. I play for the respect of my teammates, for the respect of my opponents, as well as the respect of those players who have come before me. I’m sure they understand this passion that’s inside me, and why I need to be true to myself.’

The Boks certainly wouldn’t have it any other way. Coach Heyneke Meyer has often said that he will select ‘Bismarck to be Bismarck’. Assistant coach Johann van Graan is another who believes that Du Plessis’ flame must be fanned rather than doused.

‘Our philosophy at the Springboks is: “We don’t just want to compete, we want to dominate”,’ says Van Graan.

‘The margins are small at the highest level. You have to create that pressure, and then make the opportunities count. If you’re dominating at that contact area, you’re improving your chances of success. And Bismarck is one of those players who is always going to push, who is always going be on the edge.

‘He has a massive presence in the team environment,’ Van Graan adds. ‘You see it in the change room before a match or at half-time. Many of the other players are looking to Bismarck. You’re glad a guy like Bismarck is on your side, and you can’t help but be inspired by his example. He’s not a big talker; he believes deeds speak louder than words.’

Du Plessis will be given the opportunity to deliver his brutal message at the 2015 World Cup. He will travel to the global tournament as the Boks’ first-choice hooker, a selection that will improve South Africa’s chances of claiming the world title.

Du Plessis prefers not to talk about what transpired at the 2011 World Cup. Back then, coach Peter de Villiers backed John Smit to start at No 2, despite the fact Du Plessis was the world’s form hooker. Du Plessis started just one out of a possible five games at that tournament. The Boks missed his physicality, especially at the collisions and breakdowns of that infamous quarter-final against Australia.

Du Plessis is looking forward to what will be his third World Cup. If he is looking back, it is not with bitterness or regret. He views his career as a whole, and says he wouldn’t trade his time in the game for anything in the world.

‘Jesse Kriel made his Test debut against the Wallabies in Brisbane this year,’ he points out. ‘It’s interesting to note that I made my debut in the exact same fixture eight years ago.’

He then proceeds to supply further details, such as the number of days and hours that have passed since that evidently life-changing moment.

‘It’s been a journey that’s been really good to me. I grew up in Bethlehem, and there was a time when I never thought I would play 10 games for the local club side. Suddenly, I was 20 years old and making a move from Bethlehem to Durban to join the Sharks. Everything I owned was in my old VW Beetle. I had to stop at about 12 petrol stations on the way, because the car only had a 20-litre tank.

‘Those years at the Sharks were the best years of my life. Without question. Each year, I took a step in the right direction. I became more mature, I became a better player. And for that, I have to thank the Sharks.’

Du Plessis shakes his head when asked about the decision to link up with French club  Montpellier at the end of the season. He played his last Super Rugby game for the Sharks on 13 June. The KwaZulu-Natal franchise beat the Stormers 34-12, but Du Plessis was in tears afterwards. He was that sad to be leaving Kings Park. And even now, a couple of months later, he still laments the parting of ways.

‘I only ever wanted to play for one club in my life. I wanted to be that 42-year-old who still plays for the Sharks, because I love the Sharks with my whole heart. Nobody wanted me when I was a 20-year-old boy, and then [in 2005, coach] Kevin Putt and [CEO] Brian van Zyl brought me to Durban. Unfortunately, things couldn’t work out the way we wanted them to.

‘I will miss the Sharks. I will miss the lifestyle in Durban, from walking my dogs on the beach in the mornings to being just a 10-minute drive from the stadium. Hopefully that door is not completely closed, and I can return later in my career.’

Du Plessis reveals how the Sharks helped him through one of the toughest periods of his life. Four years ago, the Bok hooker tore his anterior cruciate ligaments in the Rugby Championship Test against Argentina in Cape Town. He was forced to spend 11 months on the sidelines and explore new depths of his fortitude.

‘It was only after I started playing for the Boks again [in 2013] that my doctor took me aside and said, “I really didn’t believe you would ever run again, let alone play rugby.” My knee was that bad at the time of the injury,’ he says.

‘It says something for the support I received from the Sharks’ medical team, [biokineticist] Jimmy Wright in particular. We worked together twice a day, six days a week, for 11 months. So you can imagine how that all adds up. After I made my “new debut” for the Boks [against Scotland in Nelspruit in June 2013], I gave my jersey to Jimmy. That’s the most precious thing I have, and the most precious thing I can give to someone. No amount of money in the world can buy that. That’s how grateful I was for what Jimmy had done for me.

‘I had to fight every day during that recovery. It made me stronger mentally, and it also stirred up the old hunger. It made me realise how fortunate I was to be doing what I do.’

Since returning, Du Plessis has certainly made his time with the Boks and Sharks count. He featured in some vital wins in 2013 (the first Test victory at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane as well as the win against France in Paris, South Africa’s first on French soil for 16 years).

He led the Sharks to the South African Super Rugby conference title in 2014, and was prominent in the subsequent Rugby Championship campaign that climaxed with a rare win against the All Blacks.

The 2015 season has witnessed a similar comeback. Earlier this year, Du Plessis served a four-week suspension after his transgression against Michael Leitch in a Super Rugby match between the Sharks and the Chiefs at Kings Park. Shortly after returning to action, he began to exert his old influence at the collisions and breakdowns. He built on that form in the Rugby Championship, producing some dominant physical displays in the clashes against the Wallabies and All Blacks.

There’s good reason to believe that, by the time the World Cup commences, this gladiator will be back to his all-conquering best. He certainly won’t be wanting for motivation.

‘All I want is a chance,’ he says. ‘I’ve been through a lot in my career. I’ve been injured, I’ve seen people come and go. So I’m not taking anything for granted at this point. The only thing in my mind is the next game, and ensuring I’m prepared to make the most of it. If you look too far ahead, you might stumble and fall.’

– This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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