Bismarck du Plessis had called back with his mother’s offer of lunch and now we are in the dining room of the Du Plessis family home near Bethlehem in Eastern Free State. Eleven in all, seated at a long, rectangular table; Francois and Jo-Helene, two of their sons, Jannie and Bismarck, their daughter Inez, five family friends and a journalist. There is ham, beef, lamb, chicken, potatoes, vegetables, sauces and so much effort that lunch has become the grandest occasion.
We share stories of backgrounds. They have been farmers in this area for generations, counting their blessings when the rains came, surviving when they didn’t. Afrikaner people who worked the land for food, hunted, fished and played rugby. They didn’t have much but they had enough. When they spent money, they made a note of it and tried to live by the dictum of Jo-Helene’s dad, Bismarck Fick: “Unless you can afford to pay at least 50% in cash, don’t buy it,” grandfather Fick always said.
When Bismarck and Jannie got their bonuses following South Africa’s victory in the 2007 World Cup, they walked into the bank and enquired how much they owed on their student loans. Told the amounts, Bismarck said, “Will you accept a cheque?” With the rest of their World Cup money, they bought the giant machine that irrigates the farm. They want to know about Gordon Brown, they tell about the changed South Africa.
Jo-Helene waits for a pause in the conversation and explains something close to her family’s heart. “Apartheid,” she says, “you know about apartheid. Francois and I were lucky. We had parents who believed you should speak the language of the people with whom you share the land. We were brought up to speak Sotho and we have brought up all of our children to speak Sotho.”
Bismarck is now 25 and smiles at the memories. Seun, the son of one of the black workers on his father’s farm, was his first best friend. Sotho was his first language and he didn’t see the need for a second. Jo-Helene, a teacher in the local school, knew he would need Afrikaans. So Bismarck spent six months boarding at the primary school in Bethlehem so he could learn his second language.
The boy sensed the confusion of his new young white friends; how come you speak Sotho, they asked, as if he had been taught to eat with his fingers. He and Jannie, they never needed the local town, the farm was always enough. They would race from the garden, down the driveway, cut across a field, up a steep hill, harder, faster, faster, one waiting for the other to die. Jo-Helene worked in the garden, kept an eye on her watch and waited to greet the winner.
Near the top of the hill, where the incline got brutally steep, they did sprint training. Francois put down two concrete lanes; two feet wide, 40 yards uphill, one for Jannie, one for Bismarck. It wasn’t how fast you could run but how much pain your could suffer. On June 24, 1995, when Jannie was 12 and Bismarck 11, they sat amongst 40 people in their small living room and watched the Springboks beat the All Blacks in the World Cup final.
When the adults ate around the barbecue afterwards, Jannie and Bismarck replayed the winning moment of that final in their garden. A thousand times, they replayed it: “Van der Westhuizen (Jannie) to Stransky (Bismarck), and it’s over, the Springboks are in front.” Jannie was a prop in real life, Bismarck a hooker, but it didn’t matter. That drop goal inspired them. When they next sprinted on the hill, they found they could suffer even more.
They talked about the dream of playing rugby for the Boks and while Jo-Helene never discouraged, she told them what she expected. “First, you must get an education and that means a University degree. Your freedom can be taken away, but no one can ever take away your education.”
We speak of old rugby tours to South Africa. I mention the 1955 Lions tour to South Africa and the extraordinary story told by the Welsh fly-half Cliff Morgan about meeting his countryman, the tenor Francis Russell, at a church in Johannesburg and how the old and virtually blind Russell had sung:
Everywhere the sun will rise on both you and me,
God, who took away my eyes, that my soul might see.
Jo-Helene listens, then stretches her right arm until it rests on her husband’s right shoulder. Tears trickle from her eyes. “We, too, thank God for Francois getting Parkinson’s Disease because it has brought our family very close. We have all gotten around him and it has made us stronger and given us something special.”
Later in the afternoon, I am with Bismarck in the sitting room and wonder how he was affected by his father’s illness. “It had a massive impact on Jannie and I, he was 19, I was 17. Luckily my dad didn’t get the worst form of Parkinson’s, sometimes he struggles to walk but the sickness never took away his morale. Jannie and I lost the man who took us hunting, fishing, and would sometimes take us to a movie.
“We had to mature and take on the father’s role for our young brother Tabbie and our little sister Inez. I used to lie in bed asking, ‘Why did this happen?’ but my mother is correct, what happened our father has allowed our family to see. We love our times together, being around him, and we’re more conscious now of when we’re not together. I have learned more from my father than any other person in the world.”
Jannie and Bismarck took over the running of the family farm. Bismarck had a flair for business. There had always been a little shop on the farm where the Du Plessis family sold rations; candles and canned food, tobacco and mielie pap, and from his earnings in the shop, the 15-year-old bought 300 chickens. Selling the chickens brought in enough to buy 20 sheep and then he sold ten sheep to buy his first cow.
Seventeen then, in his second last year boarding at Grey College in Bloemfontein, while Jannie was 19 and in his first year at medical school at university in Bloemfontein: teenagers, students, farmers and aspiring rugby players. Jannie played for Free State’s U19 team and received a match fee of 150 rand. Every fee was saved until there was enough to buy a second cow and those two cows then had calves and that was how it got going.
Bismarck made the South Africa Schools side when he was 17 and playing on Grey’s second team. SA Schools captain Luke Watson said that was crazy and bet him 500 rand that would immediately change. Bismarck stayed in Grey’s second team for that year and, with Watson’s 500, he bought a nice heifer. “We had one cow for eight months, we then got another, and at the end of the first year we had three. Next year, we had seven; then 13 the year after that, 26 in the fourth year.” The herd now numbers 300.
When Jannie was in the third year of his medical degree, the Pumas, a second tier provincial team, offered him a contract to turn professional. The money was tempting, life as a professional sportsman even more so. He rang Jo-Helene.
“Would it mean giving up your medical degree?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Do you want to accept it?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Well, Jannie, I have a record in my diary of every rand your father and I have put into your education, the fees at Grey, the cost of university, so you tell this rugby team that if they pay us this amount, they can have you. We did not invest money in your education for you to give up your medical degree halfway through.”
Disappointed at first, Jannie accepted his mother was right. When the offers came for Bismarck he didn’t even mention them to Jo-Helene; he just told his suitors he would first finish his economics degree. After graduating, Jannie signed with the Cheetahs, Bismarck with the Sharks and Jo-Helene raised the bar again.
“My mother,” says Bismarck, “would say, ‘You can’t just be a professional rugby player, you have to work. What do you do when you get to 34 or 35 and you have never had a real job in your life?’ At the time I hated her for it, now I love her for it.” Jannie works in a Durban hospital, plays rugby for the Sharks and helps to run the farm; Bismarck plays for South Africa and the Sharks, works as a broker for an insurance company in Durban and runs the farm.
“Because of the climate in Durban,” says Bismarck, “the Sharks train from 6.30 in the morning to about 9.30 and then from four in the afternoon to six. That means I can work six hours in the office Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Wednesday is my day off at the Sharks, so I do a normal day at the office, eight to five, and Friday we just have captain’s run, which means I can have another good day at the office. Any free weekend from rugby, we get back to the farm.”
Though he was two years older than his brother, Jannie found it hard to train with Bismarck on the hill. His young brother was so damn competitive and he had the stamina of the cross country runner. Jannie didn’t get that gene, so he would train on his own for five weeks before Bismarck started and that just allowed him to hang in there. They made their debuts for the Springboks on the same day, July 7, 2007.
Jannie has played seven times for the Springboks, Bismarck 21. They are both excellent players but Bismarck’s fledgling career is like a cow’s tail, all it lacks is length to reach the moon. Five years at Grey, not one defeat; with South Africa he has won the U19 World Cup, the U21 World Cup and the 2007 World Cup. He started that final against England on the bench and ended up with a key cameo.
“Into the second half, England were still in the match and we had a line out close to our line. Then John [Smit] had a blood injury. ‘You’ve got to warm up,’ our manager Mac Hendricks said.
“There was no time, I just got my bottoms off, and ran towards the line-out. With blood coming from his eye, John stopped me, ‘Just stay calm, you’ll be fine.’ It was cold in Paris that night but my hands were sweaty and the first thing I had to do was throw the ball into a line out five yards from our line. You absorb that pressure, it is actually the moment you most want. Victor [Matfield] called that ball on himself and as soon as it left my hands, I knew it was perfect.”
Matfield wouldn’t have expected anything less from Bismarck. Their first encounter had taken place in Sun City two years before when Bismarck made his debut off the bench for the Sharks against Matfield’s Blue Bulls in a pre-season game. Bulls have a policy that if any kid makes his debut against them in the front row, they would find out what he was made of. It was Matfield’s turn to initiate the young Shark and in the first scrum his punch was so pure, it sound like a shot from a rifle.
“I’m not angry with Victor because when there’s a young guy coming up against me now, I try to intimidate him. And at the next scrum, I hit Victor. I thought, ‘I’m not going to be intimidated by you,’ because if they hit and you don’t hit back, they come back for more. I am a little robust, a little bit dirty sometimes but that’s the way I play.” Bismarck du Plessis is a Springbok from the old school; you take it, you give it, you forget it. South Africa’s World Cup winning coach Jake White says Bismarck can become one of the greatest Springboks of all time.
Over a cup of tea late on Sunday evening, Jo-Helene du Plessis is telling a story about her son. “When David Campese was helping to coach the Sharks, his wife had just had a child and the new arrival made Tyson, their Staffordshire terrier, jealous. David was telling this to the players, saying he would have to have the dog put down. ‘You shouldn’t do that,’ said Bismarck, ‘I will take him.’
“Bismarck grew to love Tyson, as close as a man and dog could be. Then one summer’s day here, Tyson got bitten by a puff adder and died. Bismarck was distraught, went to his room, spent the day there on his own, then got up the next morning and got on with things.”
Later, I am in the kitchen with Francois and he laughs at what the two boys have taken on, the bemused laughter at something you wouldn’t have thought possible. “Jo-Helene and me,” he says, “rugby is our only hobby. We go to the games.” Then, he thinks of something important. “Jannie,” he says, “is an excellent doctor. Some doctors will do this when they examine a wound on a poor boy’s arm,” and he gently tugs at the sleeve of my fleece and takes a quick, distant peek at an imaginary gash.
“Jannie will do it this way,” he says, and with one arm he holds my arm, carefully rolls back the sleeve so it doesn’t rub against the wound and then leans it to examine it closely. “That’s the doctor I like,” he said. ‘That’s Jannie.”
- David Walsh