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Brothers in arms: The extra-ordinary service of two Players’ Fund pioneers

By Tinkwe

At the end of 2023, The Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund bid farewell to two of its pillars in founding members and trustees Morné du Plessis and Frikkie Naudé.


For 43 years, the pair paved the way for the non-profit organisation with extraordinary passion and left behind a solid foundation for the Players’ Fund to continue the phenomenal work they do.


Known as Rugby’s Caring Hands and the official charity of the Springboks, the Players’ Fund assists 88 recipients who have sustained catastrophic head, neck and spinal injuries while playing the game they love and has aided over 600 fallen heroes over the years.


The Fund was founded by Du Plessis and several of his Western Province and Villagers teammates including Naudé, Tubby Teubes, HO de Villiers as well as Judge Pat Tebbutt and Neil Strybis on September 9, 1980, after the tragic death of Western Province fullback Chris Burger from an injury he sustained in a Currie Cup match against Free State in Bloemfontein on August 30 of that year.

Photo : Morne Du Plessis

Surging back to collect a kick in the final moments of the match, Burger was caught in possession by two forwards and a maul ensued. He suffered a broken neck during the play and died in the early hours of the following morning under the supervision of Dr Augie Cohen.


“I remember very few things about my rugby career clearly, but that day is imprinted in my mind,” said Du Plessis, a global rugby icon and talismanic loose forward who captained Villagers, Western Province, and the Springboks at the time.


“Chris’ death impacted us deeply and we felt we needed to support his wife. It grew from that initial focus as we realised there are others who are not so well known that are also suffering from catastrophic injuries and that ultimately evolved into raising millions of rands and supporting hundreds of injured players over the last four decades.”


On April 11, 1987, Kylemore wing Petro Jackson passed away on the field after breaking his neck during a zone club competition match against Excelsior. A similar fund was established in his memory, with the two merging in 1992.  


Du Plessis served as Chairman and Naudé as Vice-Chairman for 38 years, handing over the reins to former Springbok captain Jean de Villiers and ex-Springbok hooker Hanyani Shimange respectively at the end of 2018. They remained active members of the Board of Trustees until the end of last year, having held high the Players’ Fund’s pillars of caring, accountability, transparency, stability, dependability, and approachability.


In terms of what fuelled them to keep serving the Players’ Fund for over 40 years, Du Plessis said, “There were times when, financially, we were fighting for survival, and having been part of starting the Fund, I felt it was my obligation to do whatever I could to keep it going.


“I just couldn’t see myself stepping down until the next generation of guys came through and that’s what happened when Jean and Shimmy and the likes of John Smit, Tiaan Strauss and Wayne Fyvie joined. There was a dramatic uplift in the Fund since they joined, and I could comfortably say it was in safe hands going forward.”


Photo: Frikkie Naudé

Naudé, who played fullback for Free State and Western Province, said, “To visit an injured player in hospital and see him smile despite having undergone a tragedy was incredible. To visit them at home and see them adapting to their new circumstances with such strength was so powerful. Those smiles stay with you.”


Looking back at pivotal moments in the Players’ Fund’s history, Du Plessis said, “Starting to receive support from SA Rugby in the 1990s was a vital turning point, and it’s fantastic that the Fund is now the official charity of the Springboks. The Fund still relies on its own resources and fundraising, but the support of SA Rugby is huge. The other key development was the advent of the world-renowned BokSmart safety programme that was launched by SA Rugby in conjunction with the Fund in 2009.”


Upon further reflection, Du Plessis remarked, “The heart of the Players’ Fund is that it’s not just about providing financial assistance, which is very important. But more importantly, it’s about being there and offering support so that injured players and their families don’t feel like they’re alone.”


Financially, however, the public needs to continue the much-appreciated role they play in helping the Players’ Fund, Naudé urged. “The challenge financially is that wheelchairs, for example, have quadrupled in cost over the years, so as much as the whole team at the Fund are doing a truly exceptional job, it’s vital for the public to continue to support the cause.”


To support the Players’ Fund, visit and select your donation option of choice, which includes EFT, Payfast, SnapScan and Zapper.


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