The Glory of '95: Morné du Plessis and the magic of Madiba
A revered No 8 and captain of Western Province in the 1970s, Du Plessis - who was born in Vereeniging (same town as Francois Pienaar) and schooled at Grey College in Bloemfontein - first made his name in rugby while studying towards a BA in Industrial Psychology at Stellenbosch University.
While at Maties, he caught the eye of rugby boss Danie Craven, and made his Springbok debut in 1971 against the Wallabies in Australia.
When he was appointed Bok captain in 1975 against France, Du Plessis emulated his father Felix, who led the team to a series win over against the All Blacks in 1949.
“My dad captained the first three Tests and they won the three. Then he was dropped for the fourth Test - still a mystery in the history of rugby!,” Du Plessis told IOL Sport this week.
“In 1976, for me to just be a Springbok, and then the captain of the Springboks, was a huge privilege - and for our family as well. My dad was a quiet guy: not over-excited about things, not shouting from the rooftops.”
Du Plessis notes that his Bok side didn’t beat the All Blacks as well as his dad’s team did - 3-1 compared to 4-0 - but that set them on the path to redemption against the 1980 British and Irish Lions outfit.
“(In 1980) We had some unbelievable players. It was really a pleasure to play in that team. We played good, open rugby. The tight forwards were fantastic.”
Du Plessis surprisingly retired following the ‘Somer Toets’ (Summer Test) in November 1980 against France at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, which he dubbed the Jean-Pierre Rives Test - the French loose forward after whom his eldest son is named.
Fifteen years later, Du Plessis was called upon by the rugby fraternity once more, this time for the biggest project in the history of the game in South Africa - the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
New Zealand were the best team in the tournament, but in the final their pace and skills were no match for a bit of ‘Madiba Magic’.
And the man who opened the Bok change-room door for President Nelson Mandela at Ellis Park before kickoff was none other than Du Plessis.
“Before the time, the number six (jersey) had been arranged for him, and we all thought that he was just going to wear it in the change room. But obviously he had plans to wear it for the whole day! And go on to the field with it,” Du Plessis said.
“It was a moment that people all over the world will never forget - not only South Africans. It was, phew I know one mustn’t romanticise too much about it - we have big issues to deal with. But it was a moment that you can savour and say that it was a moment when people did feel united. And, what’s wrong with that? We should have more of that.
“We don’t forget the 2007 John Smit team, and the 2019 team that followed. Both of those were epic in our country’s sporting history. It’s great that the 95 team could be pioneers on the world stage.