Du Plessis eager to atone for past disappointment at Montpellier

Bismarck Du Plessis admits he initially found it difficult to settle in the south of France. Franck Pennant, Getty Images

French Top 14 side Montpellier face a big test of their early-season form in a top-of-the-table clash with Stade Français in Paris next Saturday, and central to their potential success will be South African hooker Bismarck du Plessis.

The Springbok strongman is now 34, but is showing no signs of slowing down in the latter years of his illustrious career, which includes a World Cup win on French soil in 2007. He is now seeking to engineer a second successive appearance in the Top 14 final for Montpellier, who were surprise 29-13 losers in the 2017-18 edition to Castres, and their fixture away at second-placed Stade Français is a good indicator of their chances, even as it comes early in a very long season.

Du Plessis is known as a tough, uncompromising character on the field, who spent a decade playing for South Africa's Sharks before moving to Montpellier in 2015.

A victory in the European Challenge Cup followed a year later but Du Plessis admits he initially found it difficult to settle in the south of France.

"To be honest, in the beginning it was really tough," he told KweséESPN in Montpellier. "It was tough getting used to certain ways and certain things. I was really happy at the Sharks, playing in a very successful side, playing with people that I had played with for 200 games.

"We had created something at the Sharks ... I had come in as a youngster who could not even make the Currie Cup side and we had finished dead last in Super Rugby [2005].

"But I put my whole heart, my whole life into it, along with other players, and in two years we made the [Super Rugby] final. So we created something very positive there.

"Then to uproot yourself and come plant yourself in a different environment ... it was very difficult. But tough times don't last, good people last, and at the moment I am really happy here, I'm enjoying what I do and am starting to be able to communicate with people and be involved in the lifestyle."

Montpellier currently have a staggering 11 South African players on their books, including Bismarck's brother, prop Jannie, and Bok stalwarts such as Frans Steyn, Johan Goosen, Jan Serfontein and Ruan Pienaar.

The South African influence has been strong throughout Du Plessis' stay at the club, but he says this has not necessarily been a good thing for his integration into local French life.

"It creates something nice, but it also creates a difficulty," he admits. "It doesn't force you to speak French, it doesn't force you to challenge yourself.

"If you are challenging yourself then it means you are not resting on your laurels when you stick to the same thing you know for a very long time. There is good and bad with that."

A look of real regret, and perhaps some bewilderment, comes over Du Plessis' face when asked about last year's Top 14 side in which Montpellier were many people's certainties for the title against Castres, before being downed in what was a major upset.

It is that disappointment that drives Du Plessis on to make right what he sees as a big regret in his career. "We were all so disappointed with the final ... it is difficult to explain why we lost. We just did not arrive on the day. It is something that took a long time for us to come to terms with, but in the end you have to move on."

Du Plessis is loath to compare the Top 14 to the likes of Super Rugby or the South African Currie Cup, except to say that it is a very physical competition in which there are no weak teams.

"I don't ever like to compare. What I will say is that it is like playing the Blue Bulls, Sharks and Western Province every week, when all of them were at the top of their game.

"It is a long season, 28 games that runs for more than 10 months. It is a tough competition, physically very difficult and tiring."

Du Plessis, who won his last cap in 2015, previously admitted to KweséESPN that he was hopeful of a Bok return ahead of the World Cup, having been called up by coach Rassie Erasmus for the June Internationals against England, only to pull out with injury.

If not selected, he admits he will be a keen observer of their winter tour to Europe, where they face England, France, Scotland and Wales on consecutive weekends, starting on 3 November.

"The important thing is to start well," the veteran with 79 caps says. "I think we saw that last year when the Boks lost to Ireland and then found it difficult to get the momentum going in the tour.

"France certainly will be hurting from the four losses they suffered last year against the Boks and they will definitely be up for the game. Also because they are building themselves.

"All of those teams will present their own challenge; the Boks will have to play very well to win."