As the Bulls team bus rolled into Dublin for the first leg of their United Rugby Championship tour, Bismarck du Plessis was regaling some of the younger players with stories of his many rugby memories from these parts. A few months ago, he never ever believed he’d be making new rugby memories here.
The 37-year-old Du Plessis was sitting on his tractor on his farm when Jake White phoned, offering him the opportunity to join the Bulls and lend his wealth of experience to a young squad looking to make an impact up North in this new era for the game.
“It still feels a little bit unreal to be honest,” Du Plessis says at the team hotel in Dublin. “In my head I’d said goodbye to rugby. But when Jake phoned me and I was sitting on the tractor on my farm, what he said awakened something in me again.”
And now here he is, starting a new chapter in his rugby career, with a new team and in an entirely new competition. The United Rugby Championship is an evolution of the global game as it pits North against South. Similarly, Du Plessis is undergoing an evolution of his own life and illustrious rugby career.
It’s one he prepared for by phoning a few of those rare breed of professional rugby players who have been physically able to play into their late Thirties.
“I spoke to a lot of players. Victor Matfield gave me great advice. So did Johann Muller. Stefan Terblanche really changed my mind in terms of what he said to me. Some of the players I spoke to said they were happy to retire because their bodies couldn’t take it anymore. Some of them said the last two years of their careers were the most enjoyable. Others said that if they could still play today they would. I was in the fortunate position where my body was still strong enough.
“It was obviously a difficult decision for me because I gave my heart and soul to the Sharks. But the opportunity was with the Bulls, and the way Jake spoke to me and what he explained to me helped me make that decision.
“My family also played a big role by giving me the support to do something like this. For most of my life rugby always dictated what I did. It was quite nice to be able to ask them how they feel and how they see it, and they supported me in this. It’s a new challenge and a great opportunity to be able to do what I love.”
As much as he’s excited to make an impact on the field, Du Plessis said he is also looking forward to being the example for the younger Bulls players in the same way that he benefitted when he was starting out his career.
“You remember how you were treated as a youngster. My biggest wish is that I can be something for these young players that other players were to me at that age. A player like Johan Ackermann was that player for me. I remember I was 20 and he was 38 at the time and I used to drive into training and he would be there already warming up. He stayed next to me in Durban in the same flats and he was a big part of my development as a player, and he gave me a lot of wisdom. He went through a lot of ups and downs in his career, and he gave me a lot of good advice that I took to heart. He was very good to me.
“This is a young team, and I can already see from the few practices I’ve had with them that there are players here who have great careers going forward. I think I’d tell those youngsters that you must never forget why you started playing rugby. And another thing is for them to understand sacrifice. I had a coach who always told us that whenever you say ‘yes’ to one thing you say ‘no’ to something else. With every ‘yes’ comes a consequence, so make sure the decisions you make are more often right than wrong.”
For Du Plessis, this latest decision came with many questions and considerations. At this start of a new chapter for him with the Bulls, what confirmed for him that he made the right decision speaks volumes about the player the younger stars around him are privileged to now have in their ranks.
“It was the first team meeting we had in Dublin. We started the meeting with a prayer. For me, that moment with the Bulls reaffirmed why I came back to South Africa, and why I took this opportunity.”