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‘Your captain is a great guy…’

When I sat down to write a tribute to Morné du Plessis a single sentence, spat out by an angry Irishman, welled up in my mind.

And why, you no doubt are asking, am I writing a tribute to Morné du Plessis? Well simply to mark the fact that on October 21 one of South Africa’s greatest Springbok captains turns 60 – yes that’s right, 60 – and because to me he has always personified what leadership and sportsmanship is all about I felt a tribute was necessary to mark the occasion.

The angry words I’m referring to were uttered by Syd Millar, himself one of the great men of rugby, at a cocktail party after the second test between the 1980 Lions and the Springboks in Bloemfontein.

This is not a new story, I have written about it before, but I still remember the moment clearly because for me it epitomized the esteem in which Morné du Plessis is held wherever rugby is played.

The day was June 14, my birthday, and the Springboks had managed a stirring, try-scoring 26-19 victory over Bill Beaumont’s tourists.

“Your captain is a great guy…” That’s all Syd Millar said and as I look back on the career of a man who captained Western Province in 103 of his 112 matches for his province and South Africa in 15 (winning 13) of the 22 tests he played for the Springboks I can’t think of a finer tribute, for the words were spoken with such respect and honesty.

The incident that had led up to this little episode in the life and times of Morné du Plessis had started at breakfast on the morning of the test.

The Lions were bitterly incensed over a morning newspaper report quoting Springbok manager and convenor of the South African selectors Butch Lochner as saying that “the difference between the two sides is that they cheat and we don’t” – or something to that effect.

Now Syd Millar was not a man to be trifled with. A prop forward in his day, he knew only the language of front-row forwards and that is to pile straight in without fear or caution.

And he told the gathering in Bloemfontein just how upset his team had been at the remark attributed to Lochner, particularly in the light of the sacrifices the Lions had made to come to South Africa in those dark days of the National government’s Apartheid policy.

Some of the Lions later admitted that there had been talk of their returning home.

And that is where Morné stepped in. When he took the microphone he paid tribute to the Lions for having come; he paid tribute to their brand of rugby and many a gruff man in the room swallowed hard when he thanked them for “having given us the chance today to wear our beloved Springbok colours.”

“I hope that we can learn to win as graciously as you have lost,” continued Morné, “and, even if it may not be my station to speak, I trust that one newspaper article, perhaps it was a misquote, will not spoil your tour for you.”

It was after that that Syd Millar walked up to Lochner and said: “Your captain is a great guy.”

Bill Beaumont, a “great guy” himself, told me later: “I could never have done that; repudiate the chairman of the selectors.”

And late that night there was another glimpse of Du Plessis’s inherently humane touch. There he stood, arms linked with big Fran Cotton, as they sang some long-forgotten song. Du Plessis had led the whole of the Springbok side to the Lions’ hotel to exchange friendship and memories with the vanquished visitors.

Morné, then as now, possesses what has been called the common touch. Perpetually stooped forward in a concerned way, his brow wrinkled with concentration, Du Plessis radiates sincerity and honesty and now that he has reached his landmark 60th birthday I find it even more regrettable that not more use was made of his stature as an administrator.

To me he should have been the next Craven but a confluence of sensitive political realities and not a little spiteful skulduggery within SA Rugby’s administration meant he never got to lead his country “off the field” as well.

However it is not something Du Plessis regrets. “I am eternally grateful my stay (in administration) was traumatic enough and short-lived enough to have done no harm. You know a feeling of guilt was cast upon me that I was not putting something back but in the end it wasn’t for me and I wasn’t for it,” he mused when I called him to wish well him for his birthday.

Typically he was being overly modest for Morné has put an enormous amount back – from being a prime mover in the establishment and ongoing running of the Chris Burger Fund, to joining with Dr Tim Noakes to found the world-rated Sports Science Institute of South Africa in Newlands and being an active member of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, his greatest contribution was arguably the role he played as a highly respected and skilled manager of the Springbok side who won South Africa’s first World Cup in 1995.

It has often been stated that Morné du Plessis was born to lead his country – his father Felix captained the Springboks, his mother Pat (nee Smethurst) was the Springbok women’s hockey captain, her brother, Horace, skippered the Springbok soccer side, another brother also played soccer for South Africa – but would that pedigree have meant anything but for the dignity and tangible aura of leadership he brought to the task?

It says much for his stature that even though his playing days ended in 1980 he remains, internationally, one of South African rugby’s most recognised and respected figures.

Typically he sees turning 60 not in terms of himself but the country as a whole, reflecting: “We have lived through such a dynamic age. There was a time we were privileged to live in this country and now from a different perspective, with the new dispensation, we are again privileged. We have seen the most dramatic changes and come out intact.”

I might not have known of his birthday but for a golf day in which it came up when Morné reminisced that when he made his Springbok debut as a 21-year-old he was one month shy of being 14 years younger than his roommate – the legendary Frik du Preez.

They are clearly still good friends (even though, as Frik says, Morné’s from Western Province!) and soon we found ourselves surrounded by others from long gone eras – Piet Greyling, Albie Bates, Wynand Claassen, Ray Mordt, Johan Heunis, Danie Gerber, Gawie Visagie, Johan Marais and as the refreshments began to flow so did the evocative memories of good times past.

A good friend of mine, a “stoere Blou Bul” who admitted to not having much “ooghare” for Du Plessis, revelled in the company, took it all in and later said to me: “Wie jy, daai Morné du Plessis is n spesiale mens.” (“You know that Morné du Plessis is a special human being.”).

And so say all of us. As Syd Millar said: “Your captain is a great guy.”

For the man himself he has already had a moment to remember his 60th by. Taking a call from a radio station in Pretoria he wondered how they had got to hear of his birthday but was puzzled by the line of questioning. How was he feeling? Would he be able to take his mind off rugby? Something about a wedding… and then the penny dropped, the DJs had called the wrong Morné – they were wanting to speak a young bloke called Steyn! As they say, time passes.

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