Bismarck du Plessis opens up to CRAIG LEWIS on life in France, the arrival of twin boys, a debilitating injury and his late father’s lasting legacy.
Life is very different for Bismarck du Plessis. When the Springbok stalwart left South African shores and headed to France in 2015, he always expected it to be the start of a new adventure. But even he admits that a series of life-changing events since then have altered his outlook and perspective in fundamental ways.
After featuring prominently for the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup, Du Plessis packed up his belongings, leaving much of it behind at the family farm in Bethlehem, before undertaking a move to join French club Montpellier.
Newly married to wife Anja, they arrived in France ready to start the next chapter in their lives. However, as Du Plessis fondly reflects, it wasn’t long before they faced an unexpected arrival of their own.
‘Little did I know how different my life would be in the few months after the 2015 World Cup. A different country, a new language and culture, getting married, and living in four houses in the space of 10 weeks. To top it all off, we discovered that we were expecting twins.
‘We literally hit the ground running, but in life you always have choices to make, and the one choice you have full control over is your attitude. You can choose to be positive or negative, so Anja and I decided that we were going to take all the new challenges in our stride.’
When Du Plessis left South Africa, it effectively brought an end to an 11-year career with the Sharks, and his last Test appearance in 2015 saw him earn his 79th Bok cap. Having been accustomed to the South African lifestyle and rugby environment, a culture shock awaited in France, both and off the field.
‘I remember thinking about the phrase: “It’s French to me”, which many South Africans used when referring to anything that was difficult to understand. I never realised how apt the metaphor is. Firstly, French is a difficult language to master. For this reason it is intimidating. In addition, the French way of life and general approach is very different from what we were used to in South Africa.
‘In the beginning, it also used to irritate me to have a two-hour lunch break every day as is the custom in France. As time passed by, though, it broadened my perspective because in that time you get to know the person next to you. In those two hours over lunch, friendships are forged, ideas are born and trust gets built. Eating food in France is also much more than just about having lunch or dinner, it is seen as a platform to build relationships, and I love it.’
Du Plessis says these experiences contributed to making him a far more relaxed person, while broadening his appreciation for different cultures. When it came to the game in Europe, there were also adjustments to be made. Besides having to contend with lineout calls made in a foreign language, the nature of the scrums was found to be vastly different in the northern hemisphere, where it’s seen as an area to win penalties rather than just as a launch pad for attack.
Then there is the commonplace inclement weather that turns countless matches into a war of attrition involving immense collisions between players who are often built for power rather than pace. However, Du Plessis also quickly found a different ‘off-field’ appeal that came with different competition structures compared to that of the arduous Super Rugby tournament.
‘Over here, after a match, we often have sit-down functions with the opposition, which I think is what the soul of rugby should be about, and what I was accustomed to when growing up. In Super Rugby, you generally finish your game, do your recovery and then head to the hotel because you’re travelling again.
‘Another big difference is the amount of time I get to spend at home,’ he explains. ‘It is something you are not used to in South Africa as a professional rugby player, and I’m thankful I could enter my married life under conditions where I could see my wife and kids almost every day. With Super Rugby, you spend weeks on the road and it’s tough to miss so many moments in the lives of your young children growing up. We get to travel around Europe as a family and to see places we would never have been able to if I was based in South Africa. Being part of their lives and being able to actively raise my twins while I am playing rugby is a massive privilege.’
The Du Plessis’ identical twin boys, Francois and Gideon, are two years old. Although they are being raised in France by Afrikaans parents, the brothers are being brought up to speak Sotho. It harks back to his family’s long-standing belief system that you must be able to speak the language of the people with whom you share the land.
One of Bismarck’s best friends during his childhood days was the son of a farm worker, and they enjoyed many happy times together, speaking in a shared language. Bismarck’s mother, Jo-Helene, is also a Sotho teacher at Hoërskool Voortrekker in Bethlehem.
‘I never thought of Sotho as an “African language”,’ Du Plessis says. ‘I guess in a way Sotho is as much my mother tongue as Afrikaans is. There is no bigger sign of paying someone respect than to address them in their mother language and for this reason we want our boys to be fluent in Sotho.
‘Even though our sons were born in Europe, they will always be South African, and in South Africa it’s important that we help our country move in the right direction. Anja and I want them to be master builders of a future South Africa.’
Although the multilingual Du Plessis family plans to return permanently to South Africa one day, they are happy and settled in France, and are making quite an impression.
‘Outsiders must think we are a crazy family,’ Du Plessis says with a laugh. ‘We are this Sotho-speaking clan from Africa, who farm with chickens, pumpkins and tomatoes in their backyard and who give cattys [catapults] as presents to the neighbour’s boys.
‘I think the property values in our neighbourhood may have fallen,’ he jokes, before adding more seriously: ‘Having children has changed our lives. Before they were around we used to say that life is about living for each other, now we truly know it, and practice it.’
Despite a busy family life, Du Plessis has by no means slowed down on the field of play. Having formed an integral part of a powerful Montpellier team, the 34-year-old started alongside brother Jannie and fellow Bok veteran Frans Steyn in last season’s Top 14 final. Unfortunately, Montpellier suffered a shock 29-13 defeat to Castres, but there is another part to this story that reveals the true character and determination of Du Plessis.
Although battling with an ongoing neck injury, the experienced hooker played through the pain in hopes of inspiring his club to a famous Top 14 triumph.
‘I had been struggling for an extensive period with pins and needles down my left arm, and maybe I should have stopped playing,’ he describes. ‘But in the moment, a desire to help my team made me take risky decisions.’
It got to a stage where Du Plessis had to sleep in a different room to his wife as he was taking pain medication every two to three hours, while he had to drive with a pillow under his left arm in order to help alleviate the pain.
‘I’m a little ashamed off what I did,’ he admits. ‘It was irresponsible, and in retrospect my intention to help the team did not bring about that effect. I was playing with pain, and although I had always told people never to play with neck pain or nerve pain down your arm, I was not following my own advice. But would I do it again? Probably, yes. Montpellier is a young club and we have never won the Top 14, so I was hoping that by giving my extra 1% to the team, it may contribute towards winning the title.’
As fate would have it, the injury also prevented Du Plessis from joining up with the Boks ahead of last year’s June Test series against England. Eventually, in October, he underwent an operation to remove a massive hernia in his neck.
‘To play for the Springboks is obviously the greatest honour for any South African, but sadly, I was genuinely injured and could not join the team,’ Du Plessis explains. ‘Rugby humbles all of us… All I can do is continue to enjoy myself and play good rugby for my club. I still believe I can hold my own against the best out there, and as long as I know this, I will give my best and be satisfied with the outcome. If it means being selected for the Springboks, great. ‘
It’s such perspective that has also been formed through first-hand experience of battles that are greater than those on the field of play. When Bismarck and Jannie were 12 and 14 years old respectively, their beloved father Francois was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He passed away in 2017, but left behind a lifetime of lessons.
‘Our dad was our biggest fan and a great motivator,’ Du Plessis reminisces. ‘He didn’t like it when Jannie played for the Cheetahs and I played for the Sharks, and we were up against each other. He made us give him an undertaking that we would always demonstrate to the world what it looks like if brothers love and support each other.
‘That message is probably one of the things I cherish most about him. People often say that Parkinson’s is an illness that splits families up because it is so challenging to deal with, and demands so much sacrifice, patience and a positive mindset to make sense of it. However, it had the opposite effect on me and my family [Bismarck has two other siblings, Inez and Tabbie]. It made me work harder than ever before, and it moulded our family so closely that nothing could separate us.’
In addition, a nurse named Manese effectively became part of the Du Plessis family after caring for Francois during the final years of his illness. And so, once Bismarck’s twins were born, he saw an opportunity to ‘pay it forward’.
‘I could never forget the way Manese cared for my father, his nails were always short, his face cleanly shaven, and his hair washed and brushed. I knew I could never fully repay her, but after the first 13 months that Anja and I were alone with the twins, we organised a working visa for Manese to join us and care for the boys, while helping teach them Sotho. With the new salary, she has been able to change her life, and the life of her family.’
Ultimately, it’s not the only life that has changed drastically in recent years, and for the better.
*BISMARCK ON BROTHER JANNIE
‘Jannie has taken up coaching and is helping out at Montpellier’s Espoir team. He is a tough coach, but I think he will be very good.
‘Sometimes Jannie and I have to pinch ourselves when reflecting on how blessed we have been to be able to play in such a historic and successful era of South African rugby. To put the cherry on the cake, we did it mostly together.
‘Our relationship is hard to explain and our spouses don’t always understand it. We are connected to the core and we love each other unconditionally even though we have our differences like everyone else. Since we both got married and moved to France, we have spent less time together, but probably grown even closer to each other.’