The sons of South African rugby royalty appear destined for great things, writes JON CARDINELLI for SARugbyMAG
Carel was the ‘Prince of Wings’. Michael was – according to Danie Craven – a rugby genius. In the 1980s, the Du Plessis brothers terrorised local and international opposition with their speed and elan. Even now, some 30 years after they were in their prime, the names of Carel and Michael du Plessis, and that of their older brother, Willie, are synonymous with the golden era of Western Province rugby.
Rugby is in the Du Plessis family’s DNA. Willie, Carel and Michael all represented the Springboks, while another brother, Jacques, and their father, Willem, played for Eastern Province. Carel’s son, Jean-Luc, and Michael’s son, Daniel, are now playing for the Stormers. In some respects, they have already added to the family’s rich legacy.
‘I was aware of my family’s achievements from a very young age,’ Jean-Luc tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘We had a bunch of my dad’s games on video tapes. We’d watch them over and over. When we walked down the street as a family, people would stop my dad for a chat or an autograph.
‘My dad threw balls at me from the moment I could open my eyes,’ the Stormers flyhalf says of his earliest memories of the game and its influence on his family. ‘When I was older, I would beg his friends to kick up-and-unders to me in the backyard. We’re talking about hundreds of kicks almost every day.
‘When he was a coach at Western Province, I used to hang around at training so I could play touch with guys like Werner Greeff and Jean de Villiers afterwards. I was a ball boy at Newlands for the 2001 Currie Cup final, and was fortunate enough to be on the field after Province won and did a victory lap. Those were special times.’
Jean-Luc went on to play for Paarl Boys’ and WP’s age-group teams. His cousin, however, was brought up in Port Elizabeth and attended Grey High School before moving to Paul Roos in Stellenbosch.
‘I always looked forward to travelling to Cape Town for family holidays,’ Daniel tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘We’d play rugby in the back garden, and it was very competitive. Being a rugby family, there was always a lot of rugby talk around the braai. The game was never forced upon us, though; it was more a natural thing that we all embraced.’
Comparisons between fathers and sons are inevitable. Carel played flyhalf throughout his school career and was first selected for the Boks as a centre. Those who saw him play, say the Prince of Wings was far more than just a finisher. When he talks about Jean-Luc, you get the feeling his son shares that same appreciation for space.
Father and son usually get together on Monday nights to discuss the game played on the preceding weekend.
‘I always encourage him to back himself,’ says Carel. ’When you’ve got particular skills, you have to utilise them to the fullest. Jean-Luc has the ability to create opportunities and he understands when to allow others space to play.
‘He’s also a better kicker than I ever was. I wasn’t keen to kick, so I never worked on my kicking game. It’s probably no surprise that I didn’t last at flyhalf. What I loved to do was carry the ball and attack space.’
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck has long rated Jean-Luc as something special.
After Robert du Preez and Kurt Coleman broke down with serious injuries during the early stages of the 2016 season, the promising, yet raw youngster was backed at No 10 for an extended period.
‘He’s got a wonderful rugby brain,’ Fleck says. ‘He kept us on the front foot and understood what we wanted as a team.’
In the buildup to the 2017 season, Jean-Luc was installed as the Stormers’ first-choice flyhalf. He excelled against the Bulls and Jaguares before breaking down with a groin injury.
Last year, Daniel received an opportunity to start, due to the unavailability of several centres. This season, injuries to midfielders Juan de Jongh and Damian de Allende, as well as Scotland star Huw Jones, have presented the youngster with a further chance to stake his claim.
‘What I like about Daniel is that he is similar to Damian,’ says Fleck. ‘He wants the ball and wants to take control. He’s a quiet kid behind the scenes, but he’s got a lot of determination. He’s a real fighter.’
While Daniel is determined to forge his own path in professional rugby, he doesn’t mind the comparisons between himself and his father. Both began their careers as flyhalves. Daniel moved to centre in high school. Michael alternated between flyhalf and centre at WP, but is better remembered for his midfield exploits alongside Danie Gerber at Test level.
Michael’s interplay with Carel is the stuff of legend. The New Zealand Cavaliers certainly had a hard time containing the Du Plessis brothers during that 1986 series. Again, fans are bound to ask if Jean-Luc and Daniel can dovetail to such a devastating degree.
‘I made my debut alongside Jean-Luc against the Cheetahs last year,’ says Daniel. ‘I wore No 13 on my back, but Damian and I alternated on defence, so I spent time next to Jean-Luc. It’s a unique situation, starting a Super Rugby match alongside your cousin, and I enjoyed every minute of it. It made it easier, playing alongside someone you know so well.’
‘I’d say we have a good understanding of what is required from one another,’ says Jean-Luc. ‘We tend to bring out the best in each other. I’m not exactly sure why that is. Maybe it is because we’re cousins.’
So is it too early to start dreaming about another set of Du Plessis playing for South Africa? Jean-Luc was invited to a Springbok training camp earlier this year and, providing he makes a full recovery from that groin injury, could feature for the national side in the near future. If Daniel makes the most of his chances, he may force his way into the South African set-up in the coming years.
‘It’s something we think about,’ admits Daniel. ‘Jean-Luc is closer to that opportunity than me. I have to prove myself at the Stormers first. That said, I would love to play alongside Jean-Luc in the green and gold.’
The Stormers flyhalf is aware of what a national call-up would mean for the family.
‘I’d love to be able to achieve what my dad achieved, from winning all those Currie Cup titles with Western Province, to playing for the Boks,’ Jean-Luc says. ‘But I need to walk my own path. My father will offer advice and support along the way, but he also understands that I need to try to leave my own mark on the game.’
– This article first appeared in the May 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine