FEATURE: Jannie on why he joined the Lions

Veteran prop Jannie du Plessis will add a final chapter with the Lions to his storied career, writes Clinton van der Berg in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine.

Given his credentials as a first-class tighthead for the better part of 16 years, you’d think that little would scare Jannie du Plessis.

But Joburg traffic is a different beast altogether. ‘You’ve got to have your wits about you, especially when you’re trying to drive without GPS,’ says the gnarled forward. ‘I’ve had some moments.’

His experience on the roads could be a metaphor for a season or two with the Lions, a team in transition with a new coach and a raft of new players.

The news of Du Plessis’ signing for the Lions came as a surprise. Prop stocks are impressive in the city, although the big men are mostly callow. Du Plessis was thus sounded out by Rudolf Straeuli, the chief executive, to anchor the scrum and to help tutor the young front-rankers.

Du Plessis is impressed by what he’s seen but is shrewd enough to know that he’ll be measured less by his input with them than on his own performances. He’s also not kidding himself about the pace and demands of Super Rugby and admits to wondering deep down whether he still has the faculties – and fitness – for a faster, more dynamic game than the one he is used to.

But the medical checks were passed and he threw himself into off-season training like a man 10 years younger than his 37-year-old self.

‘Mr Straeuli called me out of the blue,’ says the earthy old pro. ‘I was planning to quit; I’d have called you a liar had you said I was going to play for the Lions.’

His career had wound down fast at Montpellier. Having been at the famous French club since 2015, he had extended his stay as a medical joker during the World Cup. Action had simmered for Du Plessis, but he had enjoyed coaching the club espoirs [hopefuls], or academy recruits, while realising the sun was likely setting on his European sojourn.

Then came the call from Joburg.

Du Plessis says he is a rugby romantic in the sense that he long aspired to play for just one team, but however noble that ambition, life had other plans. It led to prolific stints with the Cheetahs, Sharks and Montpellier.

‘I’m well aware of where I am,’ he says as a 70-Test veteran giving it one final crack at the big time. ‘Rugby in the northern hemisphere is a different animal. Do I still have it in my legs? I feel good physically, but I know I’m hanging on by the skin of my teeth.’

Yet if he perhaps has nagging doubts about his physical capacity, he draws from his experience to know that he can be a valuable asset to the team ethic. ‘When I was young [at the Cheetahs], Ollie le Roux and Naka Drotske were in the front row and they contributed so much, as did Rassie Erasmus, our coach. It excites me to work with the young guys. They’ve energised me – I want to train hard and play well. This is an incredible privilege.’

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Having played in France for five seasons, Du Plessis saw first-hand just how obsessed the French are with forward play, not least the emotional investment that notoriously defines their approach.

Stories abound of Gallic props drawing blood in the change room by head-butting one another to psyche themselves up and although Du Plessis won’t be drawn on whether this became a private ritual, he says he definitely saw things ‘that made my eyes go big’.

‘French rugby is so different; it’s far more calculating. Teams can get psyched up and play on emotion whereas that can only take you so far in Super Rugby. Rassie used to say at Free State, “Educated bullets always beat untutored courage”, and that’s always stuck. It’s a great lesson.

‘The French get up for certain games and it’s very difficult to win away from home because the home crowds give their teams so much emotion. Playing away in small towns like Brive, Grenoble or Castres can be difficult because the home players tap into those emotional reserves.

‘What I learned there is that the set-piece is almost like an honour. Teams enforce themselves physically. The mentality is almost to put all your eggs into one basket. Dominate, keep the ball … until the opposition cracks. Almost nothing else matters, which I found refreshing: all this focus sometimes on just one set-piece.’

As a man who has experienced many of SA rugby’s extremes, he has strong views on the exodus of players, likening the situation to a ‘prickly pear’ – because it can be a spiky challenge.

Du Plessis says moving overseas offers two essential things to young players: a fresh challenge and the opportunity to add to their skills.

He cites the case of Eben Etzebeth as an example of a player who has paid his dues – eight years at the Stormers – and now stands to fire up his competitive juices in Europe, with Toulon.

Not only will the move will require a new player to emerge from within – no bad thing in itself – it will provide Etzebeth with an enriching, stimulating experience.

The veteran prop trusts Erasmus’ instincts as SA Rugby’s director of coaching and believes that he will judge each potential overseas selection on its merits, as was the case for the World Cup.

If Du Plessis is no longer in the national conversation, his ambitions remain surprisingly vibrant. Even though he says he’s training harder than he ever did in France, the grind of training hasn’t dulled his enthusiasm.

‘I don’t get home saying “I’m so buggered”,’ he chuckles. ‘All I want is to add value.’

The qualified medical doctor yearns to be part of a successful team with the Lions, not only to remind them that they made a good signing, but because he thoroughly enjoys being around people, his good humour ensuring the warmth is reciprocated.

‘Being near the end of my career is a strange place to be,’ he says wistfully. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do eventually. Longer term, whether it’s medicine or coaching, I want to work with people. It gives me such energy.’

There’s also the prospect of a life on the family farm in Bethlehem, too, and he’s consequently grateful for the rain that lashed down in December. One day alone produced more rain than the preceding nine-and-a-half months. The weather might have caused him tension in the traffic, but it’s nourished the farm and inspired much celebration for the Du Plessis clan.

Life is good for the grizzled veteran, now older and slower, but also wiser as he limbers up one final time to help fire up the new generation. 

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Having played against almost every loosehead who matters in a career spanning two decades, Du Plessis has a handle on who the circuit’s tough guys are. But he adds the caveat that he generally rates the hooker/loosehead combination, given that they often target the tighthead in tandem.

‘Heinke van der Merwe of Stade Francais was very tough and awkward. The All Blacks too, were never easy. As a collective, the Crusaders front three – Wyatt Crockett, either of the Franks brothers and Corey Flynn. You just knew you were going to be sore on the Monday after.

‘For a while the Waratahs were also bloody difficult with Benn Robinson and Tatafu Polota-Nau. Local SA derbies were almost always challenging too, with lots of emphasis on the scrum.

‘Among the very best internationals was Marcos Ayerza of Argentina. Can’t forget him. He was uncomfortable, strong, tough, in the tradition of great Puma scrummagers.’