DOWN HEROES’ ALLEY | The single-minded Michael du Plessis

DOWN HEROES’ ALLEY | The single-minded Michael du Plessis
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It was a time of especially rigid conformity and ever-present, underlying (sometimes more overt than that) tension in our country.

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The year was 1982 and I had completed, only a few months before, the final-year demands of school and shifted into the more questioning, ideologically multi-faceted environs of UCT.

No more for me the image of Mr Doherty, my fierce housemaster who was not at all averse to summoning the cane, standing around the corner – his beard a jutting giveaway, a scary shadow – to watch us file silently past for morning assembly, our necks craned like ostriches and collars yanked as far down as possible so that we might survive the “hair stopping an inch above the top of your shirt” stipulation.

Schoolboys being schoolboys, you would try to push the boundaries on that front; to risk those potential streaks across the buttocks.

The expansiveness or otherwise of your coiffure, of course, was of no concern on university campus and yes, for a while I did experiment with a lamentably dodgy mullet.

When it came to the rival rugby scene, it was probably true to say that the Capetonian institution’s Ikeys players may have sported a more widespread array of hairstyles in that era than their (depressingly dominant at the time, if you were blue-and-white-inclined) Maties counterparts some 50km away in more rural, picturesque Stellenbosch.

But one man always stood out in the famous maroon jersey, someone often looking conspicuously like an equivalent at the time of the Tom Hanks character rescued after years on an otherwise deserted island in “Castaway”.

In a nutshell: lots of hair and similarly voluminous beard (though in later years on the rugby field he was just as likely to sport a more man-about-town, strikingly clean-cut look, only underlining the fact that you could never pigeon-hole or guess him).

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His name was Michael du Plessis, and he was a hot topic of Western Cape sporting conversation throughout that ’82 rugby season, when Western Province’s business-smart supremo Jan “Bull” Pickard stepped up his eventually stunningly successful campaign (unprecedented victory each time in a consecutive five years between that one and 1986) to restore routine Currie Cup glory to Newlands after a drought in solo ownership of the trophy since 1966.

For many months, people seemed unsure how to pronounce his first name, and nobody much minded, really … so to some he was the regular English “Michael”; to others he might have been “Mageel”. More accurately, they enlightened me in The Argus sports department where I became a novice freelance contributor at the time, it was “Migaail”.

But this product of Somerset East, born into what would become a legendary family in the South African game, was also arriving in first-class rugby in a big way.

As he assumed the WP flyhalf berth with a confidence in body language beyond the anticipated norm for a 23-year-old dentistry student, he was bucking trends even before his unconventional personality came to the fore.

For one thing, he wasn’t a place-kicker (I am not sure I can personally recall one instance, career-long, of seeing him summon a bucket of sand or tee, though maybe I am losing my faculties?).

That was highly unusual in itself: WP were just coming out of the Robbie Blair era at No 10, and the domestic scene had also been marked by the metronomic, booming boots at the sticks from that berth of Naas Botha, De Wet Ras and others.

Du Plessis kicked with plentiful authority – good range, too – out of hand, let that be firmly known. But he didn’t need to resort to the other department, as WP at the time had suitably proficient factors at fullback off the mini-mound … first Colin Beck and then onward to Calla Scholtz.

And he was ahead of his time, in so many senses, in generalship, spur-of-the-moment decision-making and execution of skills in open play: those qualities went a long way to explaining why, with Du Plessis in the flyhalf channel each time, Province won the Currie Cup finals of 1982, 1984 and 1985 (Johan Durr had worn No 10 in the 1983 Loftus showpiece, contributing a dropped goal to a tedious affair that year won 9-3 by the visitors).

It helped enormously that the pivot was gifted with a strong, wonderfully proportioned build, standing all of 1.88m tall and weighing in at close to the 90kg mark – which made him, in yesteryear, something of a Handre Pollard or even a Frans Steyn equivalent in that respect for physical solidity.

He was more than prepared to take the ball flat, helping to either get his outside backs firmly on the front foot or to enable him to have a go at a possible gap himself, even against the most bruising of defenders.

The Newlands showpiece of 1982, emphatically won 24-7 by Province against arch-rivals Northern Transvaal to launch their period as domestic mean machine of the game (knocking the Bulls off that perch), featured a still fairly raw Du Plessis at his expressive best.

As quickly as the second minute, he produced a pearler of a torpedoed, inventively underhanded pass to John Villet – the kind that would have present-day Super Rugby commentators in raptures – for the cerebral centre, in turn, to offload majestically for 19-year-old power-wing sensation Niel Burger to bulldoze his way unstoppably over the tryline.

Later Du Plessis would time a personal bust over the advantage line to perfection, from scrumhalf and captain Divan Serfontein’s astute swap of direction and pass, to notch his own dot-down, marked by his pace through the hole and leg strength and fearless conviction when challenged near the chalk.

Among his galaxy of attributes, Du Plessis was always well prepared – his shrewder coaches generally and vitally gave him that liberty – to depart from the script when he smelled a promising situation beyond the expected template.

“You don’t box someone like Michael … he would curl up and die,” genial Chummy Jankielson, once coach of the Matie “Jongspan”, reminded me in a chat while Du Plessis was a major part of the Stellenbosch rugby furniture.

I was always curious, on that score, about what the godfather of Maties rugby and the then-SA game more broadly, Dr Danie Craven, thought of the often maverick flyhalf – and asked that of AC Parker, the Argus-based doyen of domestic rugby scribes in the period who dealt with Craven often.

“Ace” simply said that Craven also realised the need to give Du Plessis sufficient freedom, adding: “Doc usually worries more about whether Colin Beck (apparently renowned as a little scatterbrained off the park, in the nicest of ways – Sport24) will oversleep for training or leave a boot behind.”

During that seminal, era-launching WP 1982 season, I was sent to the Craven Stadium to cover a Grand Challenge match between Maties and UCT, featuring Du Plessis at No 10 for the hosts, and it was a stark reminder – I still have the now-browning Weekend Argus cutting in a scrapbook – of the player’s growing penchant for falling prey to occasional red-mist moments.

“The game (nevertheless won 21-7 by Maties) was marred,” I noted in naïve prose, “by the second-half sending-off of Matie flyhalf Michael du Plessis, who was involved in several niggling off-the-ball incidents before openly assaulting an Ikey player in front of referee Paul Dobson”.

It was a straight order to an early shower – the cooler system/yellow-card option hadn’t yet been implemented in those times – and certainly represents the first and still only occasion I have seen a flyhalf fell a prop (UCT’s Vernon Wood, if I remember correctly) in a contretemps.

Those fits of hot-headedness, while naturally difficult to condone in many instances, would linger in Du Plessis … although he also had a curious knack of extricating himself very suddenly from a flare-up and retreating to his position angelically as though nothing had happened, while his no less auspiciously gifted sibling Carel was quick to sense looming trouble at times and gallop in to help calm him down suitably.

Somehow, those bursts of rage only added to Michael’s rugby allure, the tangible curiosity around him, and it may be worth adding that I never heard of any significant grumbles that Du Plessis was a bad egg in a dressing room.

He was just … different.

There was a “disagreement” once between the player and my valued newspaper colleague, photographer Willie de Klerk.

I cannot remember the where, when and why, but Willie was just as renowned for belligerent moments and standing his ground and I have heard stories of a lens getting unusually close, shall we say, to the rugby star’s face and his inevitable resistance (I am relieved I wasn’t around, and possibly forced to try to pull them apart as if some sort of impromptu Stan Christodoulou).

Du Plessis was also not incapable of riling a crowd, and the establishment, if you like.

The time he did press-ups/stretches in the line of players during a typically rousing, solemn rendition of “Die Stem” must have won him very few friends at Loftus.

As time went by, Du Plessis’ versatility as a footballer only became more apparent as he settled into a no less impressive role as an inside centre, tailor made for both the cunningness and deft weighting of his distributive skills and his ability to either run himself, or to spark for others, wicked changes of attack angle.

It was from that spot that he earned all his eight Test caps for the Springboks – featuring seven wins – as midfield partner first to the legendary Danie Gerber, and then the diminutive but also highly talented and slippery Faffa Knoetze.

Each alliance, for want of a better word, was a goodie, and Du Plessis and others of the period would have earned tons more appearances in green and gold but for the stubborn presence of apartheid in their playing primes.

A statistical quirk is that he and Johan Heunis were responsible for the last pair of four-point tries (before the modern hike to five) to South Africa – in a 22-16 victory over a World XV at Ellis Park in 1989.

Michael Josias du Plessis was a multi-pronged “phenomenon”, that’s for sure: it was the primary secret, I’d venture, of his success.

A fire burned in him, and much of it was wondrous to the rugby viewer’s eye.

On the rare occasions I might spot the now 61-year-old in the corner of an eye, I am almost inclined to want to approach someone nearby and babblingly, breathlessly enthuse: “See that guy? PROPER sports superstar, once.”

And that impulse doesn’t grab me over many, I must say …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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