A decade on from the tackle heard around the world, Bismarck has no regrets
On 15 July the Springboks will face the All Blacks in Auckland for the first time since that fateful day, when they had a chance to all but secure the 2013 Rugby Championship title, having destroyed the Wallabies in Brisbane a week earlier.
It was the most highly anticipated clash between the old foes in years because so much was riding on it. Eden Park was (and remains) a fortress, but the 2013 Boks felt they had a chance.
And they had good reason. Du Plessis, in the form of his life, won three breakdown penalties in the first 15 minutes. New Zealand had scored against the run of play and were under immense pressure with the score at 7-3 to the home side when a single moment changed the course of the contest.
A poor, looping pass from All Black scrumhalf Aaron Smith was the real crime in this incident. Watching the ball float to a waiting Dan Carter, Du Plessis lined up the brilliant flyhalf and produced the tackle heard around the rugby world.
He clattered into Carter just 16 minutes into the frothing contest. It was a huge hit. It was a legal hit. That didn’t matter to a myopic crowd, which bayed for blood.
Carter was left in a crumpled heap from what was one of the best legal tackles in the storied contest between the old foes. It led to a fracas between the players in the immediate aftermath and one of the worst refereeing decisions in history.
Feeling immense pressure, French official Romain Poite folded under a tsunami of angry screams from the stands from 50,000 fans in no position to make an informed call. Poite yellow-carded Du Plessis – a decision that changed the course of the match, the 2013 Rugby Championship and possibly even history.
The All Blacks went on to win 29-15 and they still remain undefeated at Eden Park since 1994. It was a massive decision in the context of a match the Boks were edging at that point.
Cast a villain
Besides the disappointing outcome for the Boks and Carter’s badly injured shoulder, which was collateral damage thanks to such a great tackle, Du Plessis suffered the most. He was later issued a second yellow in the game (which was also highly contentious) and therefore a red card.
World Rugby later rescinded the first yellow because they rightly deemed the tackle on Carter was legal and Poite erred, but it didn’t help the Boks or Du Plessis. The team lost and the player was cast as the villain.
“When I got the yellow card, I was dumbstruck and fuming as well,” Du Plessis recalled. “As I was walking to the sin bin, All Black reserve hooker Andrew Hore, who is a good friend of mine, was shouting, ‘Bismarck, Bismarck!’
“He was only 10m away and I was angry. I was trying to ignore him, but he kept shouting at me… eventually I made eye contact and he said, ‘I told you, you’re not allowed to touch Dan, mate’. I just burst out laughing.
“That’s a beautiful thing about rugby, that you can be enemies on the field, and then off the field we’re good mates. We are so privileged to be able to play the beautiful game.”
People might say that I was over-aggressive but I always tried to play as hard as I could, but fairly.
At the time, Du Plessis played his provincial rugby at the Sharks and was working as a broker in his spare time.
“At the Sharks we trained really early in the morning and late afternoon. At that time coach John Plumtree really encouraged the guys to have a job outside of rugby,” Du Plessis, who has a BCom economics degree, said.
“A woman who worked with me at the firm loved Dan Carter. About five or six weeks before the Auckland Test the Crusaders played a Super Rugby match in Durban and Dan did a signing for his Jockey underwear brand, who sponsored him at the time.
“My colleague, being a Dan fan, went to the signing and got me a Jockey shirt signed by Carter. It said: ‘To Bismarck, best wishes, Dan.’ I remembered that for some reason when I was lining him up.”
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The second yellow in the game still rankles as well. Du Plessis was deemed to have fended off All Black flank Liam Messam illegally. It was a highly marginal call, not helped by Messam’s theatrics.
“People might say that I was over-aggressive but I always tried to play as hard as I could, but fairly,” Du Plessis said. “I always tried to put the team above my own interest. I would say I was an honest player. When Messam went down, I was disgusted.
“The ref issued the yellow, Messam was laughing at me, as if to say, ‘I got you’. That’s not cool.”
Du Plessis never had a chance to catch up with Carter immediately after the game. It was only much later that the two met and spoke about the tackle.
“I only spoke to Dan about it a few years later in France when we were both playing there,” Du Plessis said. “He said: ‘Mate, you just absolutely annihilated me.’”
As for Messam? They don’t exchange Christmas cards.
The Eden Park debacle was a tough moment but something Du Plessis took in his stride, having endured some adversity of a different kind in his formative years.
In his Grade 11 year, Du Plessis was playing for the Grey College second XV, but made the Free State Craven Week side. He was then selected for SA Schools.
At any other rugby school that would be unheard of, but at Grey, where making the Craven Week team is a bare minimum, it was unusual but not something that particularly ruffled feathers.
“The Free State selection panel didn’t only consist of Grey coaches and they picked me above the Grey first team hooker,” Du Plessis said. “I had a good Craven Week and made SA Schools. I thought I was brilliant.
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“I got back to school for the third term, expecting to be praised and was immediately back in the second XV for the rest of the season. I was 17 and it was my first big lesson in humility.
“It was also vital because it taught me that certain coaches see certain things in players. Some value what you bring and others don’t. Also, some players perform well under a particular coach and then when they move on, or the coach does, they don’t perform at the same standard.
“It’s a testimony to the nature of relationships in the sport too. That was a valuable lesson as a 17-year-old.”
Water polo’s loss, rugby’s gain
Du Plessis recently retired after a 20-year professional rugby career that happened, not by accident, but not by design either.
Now that rugby is over, he is working the family farm near Bethlehem where his mother, Jo-Helene, still lives. Only now the brood has grown as Bismarck, wife Anja, and his five children, twins Francois and Gideon, little Bismarck and twin girls Hannah and Amelie are happily living and working the land.
It’s a big change for a man who has spent 20 years playing professional sport, and one he never really set out to play.
Fortunately, I wasn’t too bad at rugby, and I was offered a good contract with the Bulls when the US dream faded.
Bismarck had dreams of being an Olympian and water polo was the way to do it. He had offers to attend a university in the US and initially he considered several scholarship options.
But at that time his father, Francois, fell ill, and he chose to stay close to home. Water polo and the US collegiate system’s loss was rugby’s gain.
“When my dad fell ill I knew I couldn’t leave. We are a close family and it was far more important to me to stay close to them,” Du Plessis said.
“There are many things in my life that changed during my career, many things that were uncertain, and many things that I had to work for. But one stable aspect has always been my family.
“And if you look at my dad’s illness, where illness should be like a burden on your life, it actually brought our family closer. I could always fall back on that.
“Fortunately, I wasn’t too bad at rugby, and I was offered a good contract with the Bulls when the US dream faded.
“But I turned that down and enrolled at the University of the Free State to do a BCom economics degree and play rugby in Bloemfontein. I wanted to get something behind my name because there are no guarantees of making it in sport.”
Two decades of excellence
Of course, he needn’t have worried because Du Plessis’s professional career has spanned two incredible decades and he has been involved in some of the most important moments in South African rugby history.
He made his first-class debut for the Cheetahs in 2003 as hooker between props Os du Randt and CJ Van der Linde. A move to the Sharks followed and his Test debut on 7 July 2007 against Australia in the Rugby Championship (then called the Tri-Nations) came in Sydney. It was a great day for the Du Plessis family as older brother Jannie also made his debut as a prop.
The two are inseparable. They also both won the Currie Cup on numerous occasions, Jannie with the Cheetahs and Sharks, and Bismarck with the latter. They were both members of the Montpellier side that won the EPCR Challenge Cup in 2016, while Bismarck also won it with the French club in 2021.
Bismarck played in the first all-South African Super Rugby final in 2007 for the losing Sharks against the Bulls. He was a member of the victorious 2007 Springbok World Cup-winning team and was the starting hooker when the Boks dominated the world in 2009. That year the Boks won a series against the British & Irish Lions and beat the All Blacks in three consecutive Tests.
Bismarck played in some of the greatest Tests ever between the Boks and the All Blacks. And he was an ageing veteran when he helped steer the Bulls to a remarkable 2022 United Rugby Championship semifinal win over Leinster in Dublin.
He was even there for some of the history-making low times such as the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal loss to the Wallabies, when referee Bryce Lawrence forgot the laws of the game.
With the passing of time Bismarck has even come to appreciate the Boks’ dramatic 2015 World Cup opening-game defeat against Japan as a seminal moment for rugby. It was a cavernous low for Springbok rugby, but it was a magnificent moment for the sport.
“I was on the receiving end against Japan. I was a guy who lost and it will always be on my record that we lost that game,” Du Plessis said.
“But the thing is, history isn’t only about winning. I’ve been in teams that beat the All Blacks at the House of Pain (Carisbrook in Dunedin) for the first time. You want to be part of history, and on that occasion against Japan, I was part of history for the wrong reason from a Springbok perspective, but not for the sport.”
And now the farm and family wait. It’s a new challenge, which will bring more humility. Luckily a life in rugby has kept him humble and prepared Bismarck du Plessis for a different life. DM