Rugby Union: Du Plessis made bold by his belief

Chris Hewett on a controversial start for South Africa's new coach
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How bold is this on a scale of one to 10? Carel du Plessis, deified in the western cape as the prince of South African wings but no one's idea of a Springbok coach until he actually landed the job earlier this year, names his first squad amid the fanfare and ballyhoo of a live television broadcast and, in the space of 60 dramatic seconds, consigns two of his country's greatest rugby figures to second-class status. Akin, if you like, to Glenn Hoddle bidding an immediate farewell to Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer.

When Du Plessis announced that Kobus Wiese and Hennie le Roux would not be required for the three-Test series against the Lions - unless, of course, they could spoon-feed him a lavish helping of humble pie by delivering performances of staggering quality for Gauteng province over the next week or so - the body politic of Bokke rugbydom dropped its collective jaw at a speed not witnessed since Andre Markgraaff, the previous coach, marginalised Francois Pienaar and Joel Stransky last autumn.

Neither Wiese nor le Roux were much interested in concealing the extent of their flabbergasted anger and, by the time they had finished giving both barrels to their tormentor, their boats appeared to be well and truly alight. And Du Plessis? As befitted an honoured member of one of the great Springbok rugby dynasties, he barely batted an eyelid.

"I'm disappointed at their reactions," said the softly-spoken coach with the merest hint of a shoulder shrug. "I would like them to see their omissions as a challenge. They are quality players but, looking at their form, they can improve. I believe the players coming in have the potential and temperament to perform at the top level and they must also have the chance to establish themselves by doing well.''

All of which suggested that Edrich Lubbe, the young Griquas centre brought in over the head of le Roux, and Krynauw Otto, the thrice-capped lock preferred to Wiese, would have to play themselves out of contention before their predecessors played themselves back into it. So, what gives Du Plessis, untried and untested as a front-line coach, the confidence to call such a major shot? The answer is simple. Belief.

Born in Somerset East nearly 37 years ago, Du Plessis was in a member of the Springbok aristocracy from birth and took the silver spoon route to rugby fame and fortune.

He was educated at Stellenbosch University, where he first fell under the all-pervasive influence of Dr Danie Craven, and, after setting the cape alight with the dash and elan of his wing play with Western Province, he followed his brother, Willie, into the national side in 1982. (Another brother, Michael, would also wear the treasured green in the mid-80s).

Thanks to isolation, Du Plessis played only 10 Tests - two against England in '84, four against South American select sides and another four against the ill-fated New Zealand Cavaliers in 1986 - but, happily for those north of the equator who had missed out on his skills, he branded himself on the British psyche with a truly extraordinary try for the Southern Hemisphere at Twickenham that same year.

Towards the end of his provincial career he moved to Transvaal, and it was there that he first impressed the Lord High Pursuivant himself, Louis Luyt.

Something clicked between the two and when Markgraaff disappeared beneath an avalanche of racist scandal four months ago, Du Plessis was elevated from lowly tactician to top dog: an astonishing gamble, given his lack of coaching experience.

"Yes, my coaching background is very limited," he accepted after his television appearance in Johannesburg on Monday night, "but I'm confident I have correctly identified certain shortcomings in our game.

"It is important to me that we see innovation and initiative from this Springbok side and that we develop a style of rugby in which the back division acts as the platform from which we play, as opposed to the forwards. That, of course, will not happen overnight and I'm under no illusion that I've taken on one hell of a responsibility. But I'm not overwhelmed at what lies before us. Not by any means.''

Du Plessis will plot the Lions' downfall in the company of Gert Smal, a team-mate at both provincial and Test level. "It's the ultimate," said Smal, a teak-tough flanker who put more than one All Black on the seat of his pants during the Cavaliers' shindig 11 years ago, "and to work with Carel is a great opportunity''. If successful coaching teams combine the rapier and the bludgeon, this one bears the Real McCoy stamp of authenticity.

Given Du Plessis' credentials as a rugby adventurer - Rian Oberholzer, the chief executive of the South African Rugby Football Union, describes him as a "visionary" - the list of Lions by whom he has already been impressed is eminently predictable.

"Townsend, Howley and Guscott," he says, without a second's thought. "Townsend plays in space and sets things up, Howley shows class and Guscott... well, it's hard to believe that England left him out in the cold during the Five Nations, isn't it?

"But they have so many options in the back-line, with so many good finishers, that the selectors will have a difficult task finding the right combination. One thing is for sure. We have a big series to think about here and we will be operating under a great deal of pressure. In today's rugby, the coaching cycle lasts two or three years rather than five or ten; every time your side takes the field, it is a major test of your progress."

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