Bismarck du Plessis: ‘Every time I can put my boots on I feel fortunate’

Acompelling force clearly still drives Bismarck du Plessis. He is 38 now and there is plenty else to occupy him on the family farm near Bethlehem, 165 miles due south of Johannesburg. He and his wife, Anja, already have three boys, including six-year-old identical twins, with twin girls due in March. After 79 caps for South Africa, a 2007 World Cup winner’s medal and multiple other honours, the battle-scarred hooker could be excused for seeking a quieter life.

And yet here he is, dragging his aching body halfway around the world to hit more rucks in Exeter on a freezing Saturday in the shadow of Christmas. The bleak midwinter challenge at Sandy Park in the Champions Cup on Saturday appears, if anything, to be an extra incentive. “My kids’ godparents live not far away and they’ve been sending me pictures of the snow. I’ve sent them to the young boys in our squad and told them there’s a rude awakening waiting for us.”

The old Bull, still raging against the dying of the light. And if Du Plessis could have one final rugby wish it would be to encourage everyone to recognise and relish all that rugby can offer. His father, Francois, who taught Bismarck and his brother Jannie to love the game and motivated both of them to become indomitable Springboks, contracted Parkinson’s disease when the pair were 17 and 19 and died in 2017. Ask Bismarck about the importance of preserving rugby’s culture of respect and fellowship and there is a short pause. “I get goosebumps when you say that,” he says, softly.

Playing in both hemispheres has also helped him realise the sport’s best qualities are universal. When playing in France with Montpellier, he used to ask his local rugby friends why they were not pursuing football or handball instead. It turned out that, just like him, they adored the camaraderie. “At this time of the year in Europe I can’t imagine it’s very pleasant to go out and play rugby. It’s snowing, it’s freezing and the pitches are horrible.

“But 99% of them told me: ‘You will see after the game why we play rugby.’ That’s also what I believe rugby is about. You can absolutely annihilate each other on the field but afterwards you respect each other and enjoy spending time together. In France we’d have a two-hour post-match function. By the end of my time in France it had become the best time of the week. I’m fortunate enough to have made friends wherever I’ve played in the world.”

If some of his new mates now hope Bismarck will turn the other cheek when they next collide, however, they underestimate the innate competitive edge of a champion Springbok. “I will never go softer against a friend of mine. I actually go harder against my friends because then you can have quite a few laughs afterwards.” Few modern players have been as unrelenting, almost to the point of obsession. At one stage, when battling a serious neck injury, he drove to training with a pillow wedged under his left arm to ease the intense pain. Needless to say, he still kept on playing.

Du Plessis also tells a good story about the day the Bulls’ coach, Jake White, whom he has known since he was a teenager, coaxed him out of retirement. “When I stopped at Montpellier last year I didn’t want to play again. I was back on the farm, on the harvester, when I suddenly got a phone call from Jake. He said: ‘I’m on your farm.’ To which I replied: ‘No, you’re not, I am.’ At which point he sent me a picture of himself standing there.”

The rest is history. White told him he wanted him to assist the Bulls’ younger players and show them age is but a number. Giving something tangible back to South Africa’s next generation was another spur. “I was very fortunate when I was a youngster and staying in Durban in a small flat with Ruan Pienaar. Our next door neighbour was [the former Gloucester coach] Johan Ackermann. The way he treated me and the impact he had on my rugby career was immense. If I can give that back, even to half a player, that’s enough for me.

In terms of character-defining life experiences Du Plessis and Jannie, a qualified doctor, have had more than their fair share. Tragedy, too. Last year Jannie’s 10-month-old son drowned in a swimming pool accident and Bismarck is now even more conscious of the strictly relative nature of rugby-related aches and pains. “There are people with cancer – and look what happened to my brother last year. I’m very fortunate.”

His time spent working, at various times, with Rassie Erasmus, Eddie Jones and Fabien Galthié – “I know all of them personally and they all absolutely hate losing”– has also persuaded him he might be able to help the Bulls coaching-wise when he finally calls it a day. Either way he reckons the game’s administrators must re-examine the year-round calendar now confronting South Africa’s increasingly busy players – “It’s impossible to play every week for 10 months of the year at the highest level” – and the punishing travel itinerary which saw the Bulls wedged into economy and diverted via Doha to the UK this week. “Suddenly it’s a 24-hour journey when it should take about 10 hours. We’re big people and you can’t perform at your best when you’re sitting in an airport and eating junk food.”

Flying to England at least revives vivid childhood memories. Growing up he used to enjoy watching the 1995 England side and South Africans also rated Clive Woodward’s team of 2003. “I looked up to those guys because they were a team who could perform under pressure. In South Africa we respected them for that. The English guy I respected the most was probably Jonny Wilkinson. For me he epitomises what I stand for in rugby: he might not have been the most talented but he was always working.”

On other days, though, it was England who felt the full force gale of Bismarck and friends, with the 36-0 pool annihilation at the 2007 World Cup – “That was one of my best games” – and winning 42-6 at Twickenham in 2008 particularly memorable. So if this weekend is to be his last dance in England, what will he be thinking as he heads back to Bethlehem for Christmas? “Every time I can put my boots on I consider myself fortunate. Even if I have to finish in two weeks’ time – or tomorrow – playing over 400 first-class games is something I never expected in my wildest dreams. Rugby has given me so much.” The rest of us should appreciate the great ageing Bull while we still can.