Understanding Bismarck and Jannie

Farming, brokering, doctoring and scrummaging: An extract from a brilliant piece on Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, written by David Walsh, published in The Times earlier this month.

We are in the living room of Jannie du Plessis’ home in Durban. Jannie sits on one sofa, his brother Bismarck on the other. Bismarck has Jannie’s little girl, six-month-old Rosalie, in his arms and though this is three days before the Currie Cup final that will save the season for their Sharks team, they are talking of something more important.

The family farm. Cows. Sheep. How to make the most of the land. They’ve been running the farm since they were teenagers, since Francois du Plessis’ Parkinson’s meant he could no longer be the dad and farmer he’d always been. They are explaining the decision to move from dairying to sheep and how tough that had been for Francois and their mother, Jo-Helene.

A family farm is more than a business. Bismarck and Jannie thought the odds were stacked against milk production. They sold their milk to a big company that could lower the price paid to farmers whenever it wished. Nothing they could do about it. Except turn their hand to something else.

“Our father had built the dairy with his own labour,” says Bismarck, “and it was hard for him and my mum when we switched from milk to sheep. Big decision. For about three weeks they were very, very down.” The farm is almost 250 miles north-west of Durban, near Bethlehem in the Free State. Whenever he gets a weekend without rugby, Bismarck goes home. Holidays are taken when the ewes are ready to lamb, cows taken to the bulls and at harvest time. Each day of his life begins with a 6am phonecall to his farm manager. “What are we doing today? Did you get that fence fixed?”

If his only achievement was to be the best hooker in world rugby, he wouldn’t be as interesting. If he was solely hooker/farmer, the story would be remarkable but there’s more. Bismarck du Plessis is a broker for Johan Blaauw Financial Services in Durban, going to the office after training each morning (normally the Sharks train from 7 to 9.30) and then leaving at 4.30 for the late afternoon training session. “After spending six hours on the phone and in front of a computer, I can’t wait to get training,” he says.

Jannie is a surgeon and on his days off from rugby, he’ll be in the operating theatre.

They think nothing of this. Jo-Helene never accepted rugby was a job and the matriarch in the du Plessis house was never a pushover. “If it’s your job,” she’d say, “what will you do at 32 or 33 when professional rugby finishes with you?” Jo-Helene loves the game, especially the rugby of Francois’ era, when men gave everything on the field and then returned to the land to give the same again.

“Sometimes professional rugby gets this wrong,” Bismarck says. “You play so much against each other that you almost lose the relationship you have with your opponent. I’ve tried to get to know my opponents on a personal level, outside of rugby. Can we go for a coffee and just have a chat?”

Andrew Hore, who has played 82 times for the All Blacks while helping to run his family’s farm in Otago, is one of those he regards as a friend. “We have the same interests, farming. When he came to Durban with the Hurricanes to play against the Sharks, I collected him at the hotel and we went to Bethlehem together, he stayed overnight on the farm and saw what we do. Same when I was in Dunedin — he brought me to his farm in Patearoa.”

Given their friendship, how does he feel opposing Hore on the pitch? “I play as hard as I can. If he’s in front of me, I’ll maybe play a little bit harder because after the game I want to say to him, ‘I got you that time’, but I will end up saying, ‘You got me on that one’. You have to be able to switch on and off like that.

“What rugby is missing at the moment is the opportunity for players to switch off after the game and talk to your opponent. When you play against someone and he becomes a friend, you want to congratulate him when he’s performed well.” Welsh hooker Matthew Rees is another with whom he feels an affinity. Their friendship grew out of the ferocious 2009 Lions test series in South Africa.

But Jannie, his older brother, has always been the one to whom he is closest. Francois built for each of them a 40-yard concrete track, two feet wide, on a piece of steeply rising ground on the farm. Jannie and Bismarck raced each other up that hill. Poor Jannie wasn’t as athletic as his brother but that couldn’t save him from slings and arrows.

Now they play together for the Sharks and the Springboks. Bismarck has played 54 times for the Boks, prop Jannie 51. In that second before the front rows engage, how does it feel to put your arm round your brother’s waist? “I can only describe it as having your best friend always next to you. And to make it more special, he’s actually your brother, who knows you in and out.

“When Jannie looks at me, I know how he’s feeling. When he puts on his left boot and it’s bothering him, I will see that. I don’t think it would be the same if I was a hooker and he was a full-back. But to be two and three, next to each other, where every scrum is special because we know it’s a massive privilege to do it together, there’s not a lot of things in life that beat that experience.”

Though they lost twice to the All Blacks in this season’s Rugby Championship, South Africa played well. If not for Bismarck’s sending-off (a decision subsequently rescinded by the game’s authorities), the Auckland Test would have been even closer. The Springboks seem ready to become truly formidable again.

“I think we’re building towards something special,” Bismarck says. “Heyneke Meyer is an exceptional coach. In our first season under him we did struggle to adapt to exactly what he wanted and we had people playing their first Tests. They now have 20, 22, 25 Tests. And as a side we have become more mature, more clinical.

“But we’re putting a few blocks together. Like I said, a year ago Marcell Coetzee had zero Tests, Eben Etzebeth had zero Tests, Juandre Kruger had zero Tests. The All Blacks are the best team in the world but I wouldn’t count us out.”

A World Cup winner in 2007, 54 caps and counting, there is still the sense of unfulfilment in Bismarck’s career. The 2011 World Cup should have been his moment but Peter de Villiers, the Springboks’ coach at the time, chose to pick his captain, John Smit, ahead of du Plessis.

“Rugby is a team sport and as an individual your job is to be the best you can be for your team. I know that at the 2011 World Cup, I was in the best shape of my life, the fittest I’ve ever been. I couldn’t have done any more. John Smit is somebody I respect and admire. I can’t fault Peter de Villiers for not picking me. He thought it was best for the team to pick John.

“That was his decision. If I wanted to be certain of playing, I should have been a sprinter on the track, relying only on myself. In rugby you need 14 other guys on the field and seven guys on the bench.”

Back at Bismarck’s house in Durban, we talked rugby for a couple of hours. He follows European rugby, knew that Courtney Lawes has made a good start to the season, that Sean O’Brien has been playing well for Leinster and he thinks that maybe he and Jannie will play in Europe one day. They have never been short of suitors.

It is after midnight when he shows me to my room. Lying in bed, there is complete quietness. Then, through the wall comes the sound of his breathing, slow and controlled at first, then deeper and louder. He is exercising. It lasts for a few minutes. Press-ups probably, maybe 50 or 60, and I imagine he wouldn’t be able to sleep without them.

After five and a half hours’ sleep, the new day will begin for him with that phone call to his farm manager. “What are we doing today?”

As always in Bismarck’s life, the answer is: “A lot.”