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Morne's back in the scrum

Staff Reporter

Morne du Plessis is a popular choice as manager of the South African rugby team, but we haven’t heard the last of Jannie Engelbrecht

RUGBY: Jon Swift

THERE is one fact Morne du Plessis cannot have failed to arrive at: the managership of the South African rugby side can be either a sudden springboard or an uncomfortable ejector seat.

In the case of Du Plessis, one of the most revered players and captains of modern times, there was little time—one scant hour to make up his mind—to examine the options.

For Jannie Engelbrecht, whose managerial role now falls on the characteristic sloping shoulders of Du Plessis, there were no options.

The on-going—if recently covert—civil war within the higher echelons of South African rugby has made him a very sudden and very public casualty.

But perhaps the axing of the incomparable Springbok wing of yesteryear was not as unexpected as might be seen at first glance. Engelbrecht’s views of the way the game should be administered in this country were at odds with those of South African Rugby Board president Louis Luyt.

It led to the public unpleasantness—and the axing of former coach Ian McIntosh—at the end of the tour of New Zealand. That Engelbrecht survived that unseemly fracas speaks volumes for his strength of will in refusing to bend to the expedient and take the easy route to obscurity.

Then, Engelbrecht had the support of Western Province. No such lifeline was thrown during this week’s meeting. One would expect, with the deposed coach a strength in Matie rugby, that the Western Cape has not heard the last salvo fired.

It is something that Western Province president Ronnie Masson must know deep in his heart of hearts. Engelbrecht - - a man who scored a Cup final try with a dislocated shoulder—has never been known to lie down. Do not expect him to this time.

In this, Engelbrecht and the new manager of the national side could be brothers. Du Plessis was on the receiving end more than once during his playing career. He too refused to take it on the jaw.

In hot water early in his international career for—horror of horrors—wearing denims with his South African blazer, his abilities overrode the antiquated Victorianism of the administrative rat pack. He was, quite simply, too good not to pick.

Again, criticised as being too soft, he pole-axed the massive Kleintjie Grobler in a game which produced banner headlines in the xenophobic circles of Cape rugby which read: “The hand that rocked the world”.

Du Plessis was no softie. And he could take it as well. Witness the savage sneak punch Lions loose forward Derek Quinnell landed in the first loose scrum of the opening test against Bill Beaumont’s 1980 Lions.

He also had all the credentials and his record of only losing two of the 15 tests he captained this country in—he played 22 in all—is tribute to his unquestioned ability as a leader on the field.

What now comes into the frame is the ability of Du Plessis to lead off the field. It is not an enviable task. His work towards integrating rugby is a matter of record. He captained the first mixed side in this country’s history and his opposition to the system of apartheid has been equally well documented.

It is also no secret that the ANC has wanted him involved in the game, which remains an enigma under the new dispensation, for some time.

Du Plessis is more than well-qualified to help lead this country out of the fringes of the wilderness that still pervade the game.

But right now his role is less high profile than the title would have one think. The bulk of the manager’s job is made up of ensuring hotel bookings, payment of laundry bills on tour and all the other mundane tasks which go into ensuring that all the players have to do is perform on the field.

The more public—or ceremonial—aspects of handling the media and making post-match speeches hold no fears for Du Plessis. He is a fine speaker, a master of diplomacy and universally liked and respected in the rugby world. But this is only a small part of the job at hand.

In this regard, the appointment begs another question. Will Du Plessis also be responsible for team discipline? For this, more than any other factor, was the major cause of friction and fall-out between Luyt and Engelbrecht.

One would suspect—in the light of the unseemly events of recent history—that Du Plessis will be expected to lend his presence in this area. Quite how any mandate he is given will operate in this particular minefield would seem to be at the whim of Luyt and his executive.

That—and the looming spectre of a World Cup campaign starting in May—are the short-term concerns for Du Plessis.

Taking a longer view, one can only examine the route the legendary Doc Craven took to the pinnacle of rugby power at present occupied by Luyt. It mirrors in many respects what is happening to Du Plessis.

Reluctant he may have been to enter the backslapping world of sports administration—false bonhomie is not Morne’s style—but the decision he made, agonising as it must have been, is irrevocable now.

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