Johannesburg – It’s doubtful it’s ever happened before that a player is regarded the best in his position in the world, yet is second choice in his own country. But that’s exactly what happened to Bismarck du Plessis.
The fiery Springbok hooker has amassed 48 Test caps, but has only started in the No2 jersey on 27 occasions.
Between 2007 when he made his debut and the World Cup in 2011, Du Plessis became the world’s most respected hooker, but he had to be comfortable being second-choice in South Africa, behind captain John Smit.
But when push came to shove, like in the series against the British and Irish Lions in 2009, coach Peter de Villiers realised he simply had to have Du Plessis in his side, Smit was moved to tighthead prop ... a clear indication that the younger Sharks man was the best No2.
But now, two years on from Smit’s retirement, Du Plessis is again second in line for the No2 jersey, behind Adriaan Strauss. Only this time he has fallen back because of an horrific knee injury suffered a year ago, ironically, against Argentina at Newlands in the opening match of the 2012 Rugby Championship.
“On Sunday it will be exactly a year since the injury,” reflected the 29-year-old this week. “I tore all my ligaments in my right knee.
“It happened in the third minute of the match and I’d only play again 10 months later. What was so frustrating was that I was 10 metres away from the ball when I got tackled.”
Du Plessis had been named Bok vice-captain by Heyneke Meyer and was looking forward to getting more starts at hooker, now that Smit had retired. He wore the No2 jersey in all three Tests against England in June and then against Argentina his knee gave way.
“It was terribly frustrating. I would sit and watch the Sharks and Boks play and realise I’d never get those games back. That’s what kept me going and drove me to play again,” says Du Plessis.
In his absence, Strauss took charge of the hooker’s position and also took over the vice-captaincy. Du Plessis returned to the Bok mix during the June series and will play off the bench against Argentina this weekend.
“The most important thing for me is to get back on the rugby field and do what I do best,” he says. “Yes, it’s frustrating (being a replacement again), but if I can play like I want to, everything else will take care of itself.
“Adriaan had a good season last year and he’s been playing good rugby this year. I’ve always maintained competition brings out the best in one.”
Fully healed and at least still very much in Meyer’s plans, Du Plessis wants to focus on the future. “My immediate goal is to get back into the starting team at the Sharks, play good rugby and push for the Bok starting spot.
“I need to get some game-time under the belt and play as often as possible, because I haven’t really done that since coming back from the injury.
“Having had the injury I did, I now want to really enjoy my rugby. Sometimes when you become so used to something and you lose it, you only realise then how important it is to you and how much you miss it.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do. I want to improve my game in all areas ... the day you think you don’t need to get better and learn new things is the day you take two, three steps backwards. I’ve always been my own biggest critic, I’m hard on myself and will never feel I’m good enough, that my job’s done.”
Much has been made of the new scrum engagement law that comes into effect for the Boks this weekend, which will require the front row forwards to bind before starting to scrum.
Du Plessis has a simple way of looking at it. “We’re all going in blind, no one knows what to expect. But I see scrumming in very simple terms ... it’s eight guys against eight guys and the eight who push most will win the scrum. Simple.”
Du Plessis is confident the Boks can build on their victorious tour of Europe in November and the June Tests, where on both occasions they won three out of three Tests, to go into the Rugby Championship unbeaten in six outings.
“One of the reasons why we did well in June is because we played our rugby in the right areas of the field.
“And, we created try-scoring opportunities and we finished them off. We now need to continue doing that.
“Last year, when we battled in the Rugby Championship, we weren’t able to finish off the chances we created. In the match in Dunedin, against the All Blacks, for example, we were all over them and had so many opportunities to score, but we didn’t convert.”
With Strauss currently holding down the No2 spot in the team, Du Plessis knows he’s going to have to work harder than ever before to win back his starting place. But he’s more than willing to do whatever it takes. “They always say you come back bigger and stronger after an injury.
“I put in a lot of work to get back to where I am. It’s been a long, lonely road and it wasn’t easy, but I can’t wait to do what I do best. I just want to play rugby.”