A burning desire to prove his rugby credentials after a horror first outing for University of Fort Hare has seen flyhalf Merlin du Plessis become one of the elder statesmen in the squad.
The 22-year-old, in his fourth year of a bachelor of education degree, has become the general of the Blues in the pivot position, a role he felt seemed unlikely in his earlier days.
Fast forward a few seasons and the No 10, who was recently named the Player that Rocks in the FNB Varsity Shield game against Rhodes, had taken it upon himself to guide the youngsters in the team.
The sport had not been high on his agenda before his rugby career at varsity, admitted Du Plessis.
“I only started playing at the age of 11 when I was in Grade 6 and that was only because my friends played,” he recalled. “And one of my friends’ father was the coach so they all hyped me into playing.”
As he was small in stature, he feared getting injured. But, as his friends kept motivating him and he played more, so a love affair with the sport blossomed.
Even so, Du Plessis said rugby had been a hobby for him at Mary Waters High in Makhanda and he never thought of it as a potential career.
“When I came to Fort Hare, I started taking it more seriously and I clearly remember my first match for the Blues, against Walter Sisulu University, when I had a nightmare of a game,” he said.
That drove him to the brink of quitting but he told himself that he was “better than that”.
He began to think of it as a possible career and invested a lot of time to prove to others, and himself, that he was a cut above his performance in that match.
Since then the Blues general has learnt much about himself and the game and came to understand that it was a sport in which everyone could find a niche.
“The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that we all have a role to play,” said Du Plessis.
“Initially I wanted to be the best player and have people talk about me and have game plans which focused on what I could contribute.”
However, over time, he realised that regardless of what type of player you were, and whether you were big or small, everyone had a distinct role.
“That’s when I started embracing my position as flyhalf, and sometimes scrumhalf. I started to get more comfortable in my game and started concentrating on what value I could add.”
He felt it was important to know your role, whether starting the game, coming off the bench or perhaps not playing at all.
“You have to make sure that everyone is prepared for the next moment and, as a senior player, I have tried to guide the younger ones to understand their roles.”
For Du Plessis, who has a professional career as a long-term goal, that meant making sure you were contributing positively to the team environment.
“During my time at Fort Hare I have been through tough seasons when we hardly won a game to highs like last year when we won the Varsity Shield,” he said.
Throughout those seasons he tried to bring a measure of calmness to the team and made sure that the players were having fun.
“When things are not going your way you have to show character and I try to help by putting a smile on their faces to keep them calm and level-headed.”
Du Plessis said they would need all those attributes when they played their final Varsity Shield round-robin game against the Tshwane University of Technology Vikings at Davidson Stadium in Alice on Thursday.
The teams are fourth and fifth on the log, with the Vikings ahead by two points. Victory for the Blues will see them leapfrog the Tshwane side and propel them into the semi-finals to keep alive their chances of retaining the Shield title.
“The Vikings are definitely a force to be reckoned with, but I think our biggest challenge this week will be ourselves,” said Du Plessis.
“We just have to concentrate on our roles and prepare and play to the best of our abilities. It is nice that we have a home game because we thrive on that atmosphere, so we will go out there and give it our best shot.”
Kick-off is at 3.30pm.