Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis made massive contributions to the Sharks, writes MIKE GREENAWAY.
There were tears in Sharks CEO John Smit’s office when it was finally accepted that the Du Plessis brothers would join French club Montpellier.
Bismarck and Jannie did not want to go. Smit wanted them to stay, but for reasons that remain cloudy, an unstoppable sequence of events culminated in the Bethlehem boets moving on from the KwaZulu-Natal Rugby Union after a collective 17 years in Sharks colours.
Nobody wanted to call time on a special contribution from the brothers to the black-and-white strip. Not Smit, not the Du Plessis brothers, but after almost countless offers from French clubs over the years, the euro eventually won the day, and Sharks fans can be grateful they had the services of the belligerent pair for as long as they did.
Bismarck was the pathfinder, joining the Sharks in 2005 after two Currie Cup caps for the Cheetahs. His elder brother joined him three years later, in 2008, having already had an illustrious career with the Cheetahs, which included two Currie Cup winner’s medals in 69 matches in the domestic competition, plus 26 Super Rugby caps for the Bloemfontein-based team.
Bismarck leaves the Sharks as the franchise’s most capped Super Rugby player (130) and Jannie isn’t far behind on 115. In addition, Bismarck played 42 Currie Cup games and Jannie 35.
‘They didn’t want to leave. Both of them were crying,’ Smit says. ‘That’s how much the Sharks mean to the Du Plessis brothers. I cannot imagine there will be another chapter quite like it, where two brothers have scrummed down together so passionately for their team. Everybody knows how much they hate losing … It has always been evident how physically they took the game to the opposition.’
That fierce approach has occasionally spilled over into controversy, with the brothers having had their share of yellow cards over the years, but, at the same time, they have never been accused of anything less than 100% commitment.
Bismarck once said: ‘We were brought up very strictly on a Free State farm and our mother [a former Springbok athlete] drilled it into us from an early age that anything we do has to be our absolute best. Otherwise, we will have to answer to her!’
‘The contribution the pair have made in their time at the Sharks can never be quantified in words,’ continues Smit. ‘Be it Bissie’s many game-changing steals 5m from the Sharks’ tryline, or the country’s rock-solid anchor on the tighthead in Jannie.
‘No Sharks supporter will forget Jannie’s heroics in the 2013 Currie Cup final when he played with a broken hand,’ Smit recalls. ‘Together they have written all the records that could possibly be set as a set of brothers doing what they love, for province and country, year in and year out. We thank them for being dedicated Sharks men to their core.’
High praise indeed from Smit, who as a player faced his share of controversy regarding Bismarck when his ‘apprentice’ showed form that suggested he had overtaken his ‘master’ after the World Cup triumph in 2007. This prompted Smit to voluntarily move to tighthead prop to accommodate Bismarck in the Springbok front row.
It was Smit who had recommended to Springbok coach Jake White that Bismarck be the replacement for the ill Pierre Spies on the eve of the 2007 World Cup, and during the tournament Jannie was called up when BJ Botha was injured.
Eight years later things have gone full circle, with the brothers leaving a Sharks franchise headed by Smit to link up with none other than White, the Montpellier coach who left the Sharks last year under controversial circumstances, after less than a year in charge.
While Bismarck has been a man of few words off the field, preferring to let his actions speak for themselves, his articulate brother summed up what the Sharks have meant to them when he gave an interview on the eve of his 100th Super Rugby game for the Sharks last year.
‘When I came to the Sharks, I said to [former commercial manager] Rudolf Straeuli when we negotiated my contract that I really wanted to play 100 games for one union because I think it shows you have loyalty and character, and that you pulled your weight for the province that’s been good to you,’ he said.
‘I’m very proud to have been a part of a Sharks team that has been successful, and to have been able to play alongside guys who have had a huge impact on my career, and on me as a person, because I can assure you that, as a team, we have bled for each other. We have never lost a game through lack of effort.’
And it's perhaps the elder Du Plessis’s effort to play in the 2013 Currie Cup final, despite a broken bone in his hand, that says it all. Two weeks before the final, coach Brendan Venter, a doctor, said it was impossible for him to play. Jannie’s wife, also a doctor, looked at the X-rays and told him to forget it. A specialist laughed at him when he said he was determined to make it to Newlands if the team did.
Jannie, a doctor himself, told them all he could play. He was utterly determined and his specialist eventually agreed on a temporary fix of screwing a plate over the fracture. After the surgery, he was downcast. His hand was horribly swollen and sore.
‘So I went to church, all by myself, and I prayed,’ he said at the time. ‘I asked: “Lord, I know this thing is broken. I don’t want to let the team down. I don’t want to do this for my own ego. I don’t want to do this so that people think I’m tough or anything. I just want to be part of this because it’s something special.”’
He played. The Sharks won against the odds. It was special, as has been the commitment of the brothers in a combined total of 322 games for the Sharks, most of them as brothers in arms.
The Du Plessis brothers have long been targeted by the lucrative French club rugby circuit and it seems that, more by accident than design, they will be hooking up with their old Sharks coach, Jake White, at Montpellier.
It's an open secret White and the brothers never sent each other Christmas cards, but neither party knew last year, when they were all at the Sharks, that the rugby gods would conjure up this delicious irony.
It's reliably known that the Du Plessis brothers wanted to get out of their commitment to the southern French club (a deposit of €150 000 per player had been paid to them) once they knew sacked White had been appointed by the club. But despite the Sharks’ and the South African Rugby Union’s joint effort to extricate them from life with White, the poor pulling power of the rand was not enough.
– This article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine