The Legend of JP du Plessis
It would be impossible to tell the story of the 2019 Major League Rugby season without mentioning the play of San Diego Legion inside center JP du Plessis.
Whether it was a timely try or a game saving tackle, the 2019 Back of the Year had his nose in several of the plays that defined a season that ultimately ended just a few seconds away from the top-ranked Legion hoisting the MLR Championship Shield. He’s a game wrecker in every sense of the word when he steps foot on the pitch.
“I try to disrupt legally as much as I can, and try to contribute that way,” du Plessis said of his role as a member of the Legion. “There are a lot of factors that I always want to try to work on and improve, but the main thing is that I like to be dominant when I carry the ball or be physical in defense.”
If dominance on both sides of the ball was what du Plessis was after, that was what he achieved in 2019. In the 18 matches he played in over the course of the 2019 season, including the MLR Championship Series, du Plessis carried the ball 145 times for 1,118 meters and seven tries while also making 214 tackles and only missing 23.
“Watching him make tackles and run the ball on the field is awesome,” 2019 MLR Forward of the Year Paddy Ryan said of his teammate. “It’s awesome playing beside a guy that does that.”
Fortunately for Ryan, du Plessis did that on a consistent basis as the Legion blazed their trail to the 2019 MLR Championship.
“He’s just very steady and consistent,” 2019 MLR Coach of the Year Rob Hoadley said of his inside center. “Honestly, the thing about him is you’re hard-pressed to pick a bad game from JP. He was so consistent all through the year.”
In any sport, every team’s season can be defined by a handful of moments. For the Legion, du Plessis was often the man making the most of these opportunities. When their backs were against the wall, the Legion could count on du Plessis to come through with whatever play they needed him to make.
“He had moments, but he was just so consistent through the year,” Hoadley said.
Even in these heated, season-defining moments, his teammates had to take a step back and appreciate the things that du Plessis does. Take the Legion’s Week 19 matchup with the visiting NOLA Gold. The two sides had just played each other three weeks earlier in a match that the Legion managed to squeeze out a 26-19 victory. NOLA entered the Week 19 matchup needing a victory and some help to keep their playoff hopes alive while San Diego needed a victory to lock up the top seed heading into the Championship Series.
With just over 10 minutes left to the match, the Legion found themselves clinging to a 22-10 lead with the Gold marching towards a try. The Gold won a scrum and worked the ball wide to their All-MLR outside center Tristan Blewett who shot through a gap in the Legion’s defense. That’s when du Plessis, who came off the first receiver, shot over, tackled Blewett and forced a turnover just a few meters from the line. That tackle not only slammed the door on a NOLA comeback, but it also secured home field advantage for the Legion throughout the Championship Series.
“I think one tackle on Tristan Blewett in the NOLA game at home, which we needed to win to finish at the top of the table, from nowhere JP made this absolute try-saving tackle and turned the ball over,” Ryan recalls. “It really swung the game in our favor. They had been attacking for a long time, and they could’ve put a bit of pressure on the scoreboard, but he really squashed that. It was awesome.”
That was just one of the 19 tackles du Plessis made in that ever-important match, but that wasn’t even the most impressive performance of the season. One of the matches that stuck out to Hoadley was their 28-22 road victory over the Seattle Seawolves in Week 10. On this day, the Legion had trouble getting out of their own way in arguably the toughest venue to visit in the MLR. They received three cards, two yellows and a red, that forced them into playing with just 13 men for a stretch of the match. Fortunately for the Legion, du Plessis came to play.
“I think the away game in Seattle when we were down to 13 men, I think JP probably tackled for the 14 and 15 men that we were missing,” Hoadley said. “Obviously, when you’re down that many numbers, you’re in a massive push defense. That just means that the inside defenders have to cover so much distance. He was going almost sideline to sideline. He was phenomenal that day.”
Phenomenal is a great way to sum up the performance that du Plessis put in that day. He finished the match with a season-high 26 tackles while also gobbling up 62 meters on nine carries on the offensive side of the ball. Due in large part to his efforts, the Legion escaped with their second win of the season over the reigning MLR Champions. Those two wins proved to be massive when it came down to playoff seeding.
“He’s an incredibly unselfish guy and he’s happy to do that job for the team,” Hoadley said of du Plessis’ mindset. “On top of that, I think he’s got to be one of the best defenders in the league. He’s consistently making 15 to 20 tackles and he covers a lot of ground in terms of what he does in defense and he rarely misses a tackle. I think he was actually phenomenal on the defensive side for us.”
It would be doing du Plessis an injustice to omit what was likely his biggest play of the season. That moment came in the Legion’s semifinal match against Rugby United New York.
With just under two minutes to play, the Legion faced a 22-17 deficit with possession of the ball. After driving the ball deep into RUNY territory, the Legion began to work their phases back across the pitch. With no room for error, fly-half Joe Pietersen spun a pass into the hands of Jordan Manihera who took the ball into contact. Instead of waiting for his support to establish a ruck, Manihera threw an offload that looked as if it would signal the end of the Legion’s scoring chances and also their season.
“I still remember, it was Jordan Manihera, threw an offload and I sort of thought in my head, I’m like, ‘Oh no no no. We shouldn’t throw the ball away,’” du Plessis said as he went through the play in his head. “And then all of a sudden it bounced perfectly through the next player’s legs and into my hands and all I had to do was dive over. That was literally luck hitting me.”
Just as he described, the ball bounced through a Legion player’s legs and right into the hands of a wide open du Plessis who dove into the corner for a try to tie the match at 22. From there, it was Pietersen who nailed the tough conversion to hand RUNY a 24-22 loss and secure San Diego’s spot in the MLR Championship.
The “loose forward in the backline,” as he likes to describe the way he thinks of himself, always seems to be in the right place at the right time. But that’s no coincidence. Great players place themselves in those positions.
“I think like everything in life, it’s all about the bounce of the ball,” du Plessis said of his timely try. “It’s about opportunities and about luck. Whether I scored the try or whoever scored the try, it was basically just the fact that we evened the game. Talking about Joe, he’s as cool, calm and collected as they come, and I just knew he was going to hit it. That whole experience in itself was probably one of the best in my life. It was really an amazing experience, that specific moment.”
That same attitude towards both his teammates and his outlook on life is what makes du Plessis a special player and a special person. If you ask anyone who has spent any time around him, they all say the same thing.
“JP is just a legend,” Hoadley said of du Plessis. “He’s pretty laid back. He’s a great family man. He’s got a beautiful young family. He’s just very steady and consistent. He manages his emotions pretty well and we know what we are getting from his every week. He’s just a very, very calm presence for the team.”
“He’s a great bloke,” Ryan said of his teammate. “He’s team first. I think he’s just got a real strong moral compass and a good foundation as a person. You can see that by the way he is with his family. I spent a lot of time with him and his wife Chloe and their daughters. He’s a great family man and then when he plays, you can see that he really plays for his family. He really does himself proud. The way he carries himself, he’s very professional. He’s got the body of an Adonis. He’s a true professional.”
When du Plessis’ teammates and coaches speak that highly of the way that he carries himself off the field, it’s not hard to understand why he excels on the pitch. When things are going right off the pitch, things tend to go right on the pitch. To get things right, du Plessis stepped away from the game for a bit. That reason alone is one of the things that makes him so proud to win the MLR’s first ever Back of the Year award.
“I think, especially retiring for two years and coming back to play again and being lucky enough to win this award, there are many other players that were strong competitors that I would’ve given it to. That’s really, really rewarding. All of the hard work that went in and it’s also just a sign, you know with Paddy (Ryan) being the Forward of the Year, of basically a team that plays well together and gives each other opportunities. It really means a lot to me. Especially being a part of a team where the coach and the forward (won awards), that’s really just amazing.”
In typical rugby fashion, du Plessis won’t take the credit. He’s quick to say that his performance is just a byproduct of the teammates he’s surrounded by. Du Plessis’ speaks the same way of his teammates that they do of him. The bond they share off the pitch is why they are so successful on it.
“For me to be back of the year, that’s just kind of a sign of the players that you are playing next to,” du Plessis said. “Off-field, we just gelled. Everyone glued. Obviously everyone is different in their own way, but the way we could accept each other and enjoy each other’s cultures and the way that each and every one views life, that was really the amazing experience being around these guys where the 9, 10, 12, 13 really get along well. That was special.”
A well-traveled, quality player like du Plessis has belonged to a handful of clubs and played on his fair share of teams. According to him, the Legion’s dynamic was one that he had never experienced before.
“I’ve been with many teams before and it’s very rare that you find a team where everyone, literally every single person on the team gets along. There is not one person that you would say, ‘Listen, I’m not getting along with this person,’” du Plessis explained. “That was something that was very unique and very special and there was a great vibe. Whether we won or lost, the vibe was the same and that family feeling was the same and that truly is what I think carried us through the season.”
San Diego’s season ended just seconds away from an MLR Championship Shield. Both du Plessis and the Legion have some unfinished business to attend to in 2020, but it’s because of players like du Plessis that give the Legion reason to believe they have something special in the making.
Someone as steady as JP du Plessis is the right man to build around.
Colton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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