Jannie du Plessis is not your average professional rugby player. In an era when boys are signed by provincial unions straight from school, he is a qualified doctor who also has a share in the family farm in Bethlehem.
Along with younger brother Bismarck, he has just been selected for his third World Cup, a fact that he describes as “surreal, a dreamlike state”. Again, this is not typical rugby speak and when the Mail?&?Guardian sat down with Jannie at the team hotel in Durban, the imminent tournament sometimes seemed the furthest thing from his mind.
The boys had brought their father down from the farm for the announcement. Sixty-nine-year-old Francois du Plessis has been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for 15 years and it had just begun to manifest when Jannie was forced to make a life-changing decision. Three years into his medical studies in Bloemfontein, Jannie was burning the candle at both ends, working nights at a hospital and training with the Cheetahs during the day.
“I was lucky to have a group of fellow students who were very kind to me and would do the shifts on the days I couldn’t. So for a long time I worked nights on Wednesdays and Sundays. Mondays could seem very long sometimes. I would come from the hospital and go to the gym, and after that there would be a video session and a line-out session. By the afternoon, when sometimes you might have a contact session and somebody tackles you too hard, you almost get emotional, thinking: ‘If they only knew how tired I am, they wouldn’t do that.’?”
Ready to jump
The human body can only take so much, and when the chance came to abandon his studies and play rugby full time, Jannie was ready to jump:
“In 2003 I got an offer from the Pumas Rugby Union, who at the time were being coached by Chris Grobler and Danie Gerber. Chris called me and said he had seen something in me and wanted to make me an offer to come and play. At the time, things on the farm were quite tough. My dad was sick and the offer of R120 000 was double what my mum got as a teacher. The money would have changed our whole environment because I would have been able to contribute.
“So I went to my mum, Jo-Helene, and I said: ‘I’m 21 years old now, and I think this offer would be the best for us as a family and the best for me. I’m going to play rugby full time now.’ Also, don’t forget, I was in my third year of studies and that meant I still had five years left before I qualified, including two years of internship and one year of community service. So I thought I should rather work my butt off as a rugby player for those five years and maybe try and get another job at the same time and try and help out.
“I said all of that to my mum on the farm one Saturday morning, and she was quiet and I thought she took it quite well. Bismarck and I spent the rest of the morning riding horses on the farm and then we went to church, but when we lit the braai that afternoon, mum and dad called me to one side and sat me down. She put a letter in my hand, which I didn’t really understand, so she explained it. She said: ‘Listen, you’re a big man now and I can’t make decisions for you. But this is the money that I have invested in your education and if you stop studying, this is the amount that you will have to pay me back.’
Not higher grade maths
“I didn’t need maths at higher grade to understand that the money the Pumas were offering me and the money that I owed my mum were never going to be even. That evening I picked up the phone to Chris Grobler and apologised, [saying] that I would not be joining the Pumas. And today I am forever grateful to my mum for giving me tough advice in a very good way. She could have just done it the Calvinistic Afrikaner way and said no, but if you have any ambition you are probably going to rebel against that.”
Having qualified as a doctor, Jannie moved to Durban to join Bismarck at the Sharks at the start of the 2008 season. He put his qualifications to work immediately by starting work at the military hospital, “seeing everything from ingrown toenails to high blood pressure”.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it. I started studying to be a doctor because I enjoyed working with people: it gives you the satisfaction that sport cannot, because you are making a difference and really helping somebody. But three and a half years ago, I got married and realised I had to prioritise. When you’re single you can be selfish and do what you like, but I realised that if I carried on that way I would end up having a job and no wife, so I’m just doing short sessions at different places at the moment.”
Jannie will be 33 in November, however, and the prospect of life after rugby is already apparent. As the eldest son he should be taking over the family farm, Stirling, but “Bismarck is a born farmer and I’m a doctor, so he’ll go back to Stirling and raise his kids there and I’ll get a farmhouse as close as possible and raise my kids there”.
That would help him keep a distant eye on the farm, where Brahman cattle are crossbred with Simmentalers. When Jannie was a boy there was a dairy, too, but his father’s illness forced them to close it. “So there is a part of me that loves Friesian or Holstein cattle. The black on white juxtaposed with green grass is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever laid my eyes upon.”
Black and white on green: sounds like a template for the future of Springbok rugby.