Fund chairman Morne du Plessis spoke to Duane Heath of the Sunday Times about the 30-year anniversary of the Fund and his role in the future of Cape Town sport.
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HE might have given away his last remaining Springbok jersey years ago, but that hasn’t stopped Morné du Plessis from remaining a collector at heart.
Du Plessis, 60, captained the Boks in 15 Tests (of which he won 13) but his stature in the game has only grown since his retirement 30 years ago. He managed the 1995 World Cup-winning team and last week commemorated three decades as chairman of the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund, which he founded after former teammate Burger was injured and later died playing for WP in a Currie Cup match against Free State.
The traumatic events of that afternoon in Bloemfontein – which took place exactly 30 years ago tomorrow – prompted the deep-thinking Du Plessis to “switch off the engines”, as he famously told a non-plussed Dr Danie Craven ahead of the 1981 tour to New Zealand. But despite Craven’s tactics of persuasion (“to resist him you had to be really sure”), Du Plessis stood firm. He hung up his boots at the peak of his powers and struck out on a career path in which rugby, and its ethos of teamwork, was never far away.
“I collect activities but strangely enough I’m the worst memorabilia collector,” he said. “If you come to my home I don’t know if I’ve got a rugby jersey left because they’ve all gone to various causes. At my age I think I’ve got to start shedding some activities but there are some commitments you make, and you’ve got to stick by them.”
A renowned workaholic, Du Plessis’ “activities” include managing the Fund (which last week raised R1-million for injured players at its annual banquet) as well as the Sports Science Institute at Newlands, which he established together with Professor Tim Noakes in the 1990s.
These projects however pale in comparsion with what he calls his “real job”, one part of which is to manage the Cape Town Stadium and ensure that it remains sustainable.
“I’m a director of the Marc Group, which is the holding company for the SAIL group that helps to operate the stadium,” said Du Plessis. “I’d say it’s the biggest project I’ve ever been involved in. If this is going to be successful it’s going to be a team effort between the City of Cape Town, the ratepayers, the soccer clubs, dare I say it the rugby people, national government and the people of Cape Town.
“But if we can capture the pride people have in that stadium and the global exposure that it got, if we can just package that…It’s going to take time, but it won’t be for lack of trying.”
Du Plessis said the stadium’s long-term financial health ideally depended on two sporting teams who could fill it 12-14 times a year. “There are concert opportunities but there are a limited amount of acts that can draw 50,000. U2 can but they can’t come 12 times a year! If we give them something they will come.”
Friday night’s PSL double-header featuring Cape Town sides Ajax and Vasco da Gama got the viability ball rolling, but Du Plessis knows that for the stadium to be a success, one or more of the Boks, Stormers and his beloved WP would need to play there on a more regular basis.
Rumours persist about rugby’s imminent move from Newlands but for Du Plessis, whose name is synonymous with the ageing venue, having a foot in both camps has not always made his job easy.
“Sometimes I wake up at night and think to myself, which life are you in at the moment? Is it the next one or the past one?” he said. “I read a description in an American newspaper during the World Cup that said we visited this concept of unity in 95, but now we need to inhabit it. I hope we don’t forget again and drift our merry ways.
“I have no concern about moving with the times but I will be tremendously sad if rugby does move and so it should be,” he said. “But from a stadium side we aren’t going to comment on rugby anymore. It doesn’t help us entering into the fray except to say we respect (WP’s) position.”
Despite his all-consuming business commitments, Du Plessis exercises “religiously” by running or cycling every morning and playing golf on a regular basis. “There’s no reason not to find time to do something but I don’t think I’d ever be able to retire 100 percent,” he said. “But I certainly would look at a slowdown very soon. My kids are all grown up now, my daughter is a clinical psychologist, my eldest son works in a financial services group in Cape Town and my youngest son started his articled clerk year in Johannesburg last weekend.
“My wife affords me the time, we have a great 35-year relationship and we have our ambitions going forward. We have quite a time on the horizon but it doesn’t seem to be coming closer!”
But just as Du Plessis begins to eye semi-retirement, yet another of his activities threatens to keep him in the spotlight a little longer. “My latest passion is the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation,” he said. ”I’ve seen first-hand the power of sport and the role it can play, from Mumbai, India to East Berlin to South Africa, where we’ve got 12 projects.
“I might change my mind about a lot of things, but one thing I’m not going to change my mind about is how important sport is in any society and how important sport has been in our lives in this country.”