Morné du Plessis was one of South Africa’s greatest rugby players and leaders, and in both respects he followed in his father’s footsteps. Du Plessis senior led the Springboks to a four-nil whitewash of the much-vaunted All Blacks in 1949, and 37 years later Du Plessis junior led the ‘Boks to a three-one series triumph over New Zealand. They are the only father-son combination in Springbok history to captain the team.
Morné began playing for the South African national team some years earlier, making his debut as Springbok eighthman in 1971 in a three-test series away to Australia. It was a successful series for the tourists, who won the three tests 18-6, 14-6 and 19-11.
It was another three years before South Africa took to the international rugby stage again, and it proved a tough time for Springbok rugby as they faced the 1974 British Lions team, regarded by many as the finest rugby team ever assembled. The Lions swept through South Africa unbeaten, drawing only their last test against the Springboks 13-13.
Du Plessis played in the first two tests, losses of 12-3 and a then record 28-9, before being dropped. It was a time of panic in Springbok selection, with 33 players in all taking the field against the Lions. Only three players played in all four tests.
Through the rest of his 22-test career, covering 10 years but restricted to few matches because of South Africa’s apartheid policies, Du Plessis would play in only two more losing matches.
South Africa toured France towards the end of 1974 and restored some pride by defeating the Tricolores 10-8 and 13-4. Du Plessis played in both games.
The French toured South Africa the following year, and Du Plessis was selected to lead the Springboks. He proved a success in the leadership role as the home team won 38-25 in Bloemfontein and 33-18 in Pretoria. The next big challenge awaiting Du Plessis was a four-test series against the All Blacks in 1976. It proved a much tighter and tougher challenge than the one provided by the French.
The South Africans claimed a somewhat controversial series win under Du Plessis’ captaincy, winning the first test 16-7, losing the second 15-9, winning the third 15-10 and taking victory in the fourth 15-14. In 1977 the Springboks faced a World XV in Pretoria and triumphed 45-24 in a high-scoring encounter.
It was three years before the South Africans took to the field again, as the bite of international isolation took its toll. Just prior to a much-anticipated tour by the British Lions, the Springboks faced South America, a team made up mostly of Argentinians but also including players from Chile and Uruguay, in two tests. With Du Plessis to the fore, South Africa won 24-9 in Johannesburg and 18-9 in Durban.
The Lions series was eagerly awaited because South Africa had beaten New Zealand in 1976 after their thrashing at the hands of the Lions, while the All Blacks had narrowly beaten the Lions in 1977. The question was: where did South Africa stand in world rugby in 1980?
In the first test in Cape Town the Lions held the upper hand up front, but the Springbok backs had the edge over their opponents and the home side scored five tries to one as the ‘Boks claimed a 26-22 victory. Du Plessis’ side ensured that they would at least share the series when they defeated the tourists 26-19 in Bloemfontein.
In trying conditions the South Africans made sure of winning the series when they pipped the Lions 12-10 in Port Elizabeth. With the outcome of the series already decided, the Lions managed a consolation win in the final test, triumphing 17-13 in Pretoria.
In October 1980 the Springboks toured South America, but Du Plessis played in only one of the two tests, leading his team to a 30-16 success against the Jaguars in Santiago. The Western Province eighthman’s final test in charge of the ‘Boks was a November international against France in Pretoria. With a powerful performance that saw the home team outscore the French five tries to one, Du Plessis was provided with a fitting send-off.
In all, he played in 22 tests for South Africa, 18 of which were victories. Under his leadership South Africa won 13 matches and lost only twice.
His contribution to Springbok rugby was not over, however, and in 1995 he played an important role in what was perhaps South Africa’s biggest ever triumph in the sport. Du Plessis managed the Springbok team in the World Cup held in South Africa. Up until that time, provincial rivalries had dogged the national side, but under his considerable leadership skills the team gelled and went on to win the World Cup. Du Plessis’ role in that victory should not be under-estimated.
Du Plessis’ stature in the world of rugby, and in sport in general, was recognised by the Laureus World Sports Awards, the sports equivalent of the Oscars in which the world’s best athletes are honoured by former greats of sport.
He was elected a member of the World Sports Academy, to decide upon the winners of the annual awards, placing him in the company of other greats of the sporting world including Gary Player, Nadia Comaneci, Sir Bobby Charlton, Mark Spitz, Sir Vivian Richards, Hugo Porta, Sergey Bubka, Kip Keino, Martina Navratilova, Dan Marino, Sebastian Coe, Jack Nicklaus, Willie Shoemaker and Katarina Witt, among others.
Today Du Plessis remains one of South African sport’s favourite sons, highly respected for his role as a sportsman both on and off the field.