Pieter-Steph du Toit capped off a sensational season when he was named World Rugby Player of the Year, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG.
On a wild night in Yokohama in early November, Pieter-Steph du Toit moved from the realm of rugby mortal to zombie figure, at least in George Ford’s world.
Whenever the England flyhalf looked up, there was Du Toit, bearing down on him like a rampaging fiend from The Walking Dead. No Mister Nice Guy on this extraordinary evening.
If he wasn’t flattening him outright, the South African was making him fret, his normally tidy game forced into meltdown by the mayhem wrought by the Springbok loose forward.
It was Ford’s misfortune to be targeted by Du Toit in the World Cup final. Given their respective assignments, the smart money might have been on Ford, usually a calm, nerveless playmaker with a deft kicking game.
Du Toit has an engine like a John Deere tractor, all might and muscle, but he’s no thoroughbred in the sprinting stakes. Yet his timing, instincts and running lines were never better as he set about following Rassie Erasmus’ orders to cause chaos in the flyhalf’s channel.
When he did, it was less a case of PSDT as PTSD for Ford, who stuttered and struggled.
In an early instance, off an England lineout ball, Du Toit lined him up on five consecutive phases, twice clattering into him. Ford thereafter moved deeper and deeper, throwing out the England backline alignment. Seemingly awaiting the inevitable big hit, Ford’s service was ropey and England’s big midfield bangers were denied their launch pad.
The like of Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi and Cheslin Kolbe lapped up the plaudits, but Du Toit, quite typically, stayed on the margins in the aftermath, quietly and without fuss.
When it came out in the wash that he’d made a staggering 20 tackles in the final, it was no real surprise. The indefatigable South African has always had a mind-blowing work ethic which may not always be evident, but is permanently recognised by opponents and teammates alike. Just over a day later, Du Toit was named World Player of the Year.
The response from the rugby community was emphatic: he was a worthy winner, much admired by rugby’s brotherhood.
World champion on Saturday, World Player of the Year on Sunday; it says much for Du Toit’s laconic style that his laid-back personality never wavered. The big man almost looked shy as he accepted his award from Bryan Habana, no less.
If Japan represented the very peak of Du Toit’s career, his journey to this point ought to add deeper lustre to his fast-developing greatness for it gives context and meaning to his triumph.
While the South African has carved out a reputation as one of the pillars of the Boks, hard and unrelenting, he’s walked a hard road with injuries.
At the Sharks, where he made his first-class debut, he endured five operations for a myriad injuries. The last of these, an anterior cruciate ligament tear, threatened to put the kibosh on his 2015 World Cup ambitions, but his father Pieter turned miracle-maker and donated his own tendons to accelerate the healing process.
As familial gifts go, this was one that would take some beating. Indeed, the gesture probably saved his career.
Du Toit duly made the World Cup, starting just a single game – the unforgettable Miracle of Brighton – and spending most of the rest of his time in the shadows.
The other big challenge was converting from lock to loose forward; not easy, but not impossible.
While at Hoërskool Swartland in the Cape, Du Toit’s early high school years saw him employed in the back row, which he enjoyed.
He was encouraged to shift to lock, but the prospect never excited him, preferring to be looser. It was only when the Craven Week selectors came calling that he was convinced he had a better chance at lock. Not given to arguing, he made the switch and it’s how he was scouted by the Sharks, who were on the lookout for an athletic second row.
If he’s a big chunk of meat in the rugby sense, there are two reasons for this. His grandfather was Piet ‘Spiere’ (Muscles) du Toit, so strength is part of his DNA. He’s also a product of the farm, lending sustenance to an old Springbok legend that many of the best Boks come from farming stock.
Having stepped in for an injured Willem Alberts in the Japanese debacle, Du Toit’s first match as first-choice No 7 came against England at Twickenham the following November, by which time he was also a Stormers player. It was a bitter, bumbling performance notable for how scrumhalf Ben Youngs so easily skirted past him.
English rugby scribe Stephen Jones was savage in his judgment: ‘Any examination of the superb play of Ben Youngs must be appended by the fact that Pieter-Steph du Toit on the flank was so immobile he resembled something from Madame Tussaud’s.’
To be fair, this was at a time when Allister Coetzee had all but lost his team’s confidence. The next week, they promptly imploded against Italy (with Du Toit back at lock).
As the clock wound down on Coetzee’s tenure, Du Toit was used more and more by the coach as a loose forward, Coetzee having encouraged his development in the No 7 jersey. Du Toit started in three of Coetzee’s final four Test matches, but he was still a hard sell as an out and out blindside carrier.
Brought in to save the day in mid-2018, Erasmus named 13 new caps in his debut Test, and made Du Toit captain. The match against Wales, which took place in the US, was a mess. Conditions were terrible and the game was lost. Several players have not worn the Bok jersey again.
England loomed the next week and Du Toit was named among the replacements, Erasmus telling SA Rugby magazine he wasn’t convinced the hype around Du Toit matched reality.
‘There was always desire, but I wanted to see the hunger,’ said Erasmus perceptively. ‘He is a player who is so naturally blessed, but often with players so good, they never have to go to the darkest places to find themselves.’
If the back row took time to settle down, Du Toit was fairly well installed as the blindside for the Rugby Championship match against New Zealand in Wellington in 2018. He was beastly as the Boks sought to atone for the previous year’s 57-0 embarrassment. He made almost 30 tackles in an apocalyptic game, but that wasn’t what he was remembered for.
Rather, as the Springboks celebrated a 36-34 win, the first in New Zealand in nine years, the enduring image was one of tears streaming down Du Toit’s cheeks. At the World Rugby awards several weeks ago, he spoke of how special it was to be part of the Springboks. In New Zealand, those emotions were writ large upon his big, happy face as the weight of the moment dawned on him.
‘He was always a big player, but he now is a leader of players,’ Erasmus remarked.
That match was likely the turning point for Du Toit. Part of his happy embrace of the position comes from Erasmus clearly defining his role and having unequivocal trust in his ability to execute the game plan. Du Toit duly stamped his mark indelibly on the World Cup tableau.
Part loping giraffe, part angry buffalo, he’s comfortable playing tight or loose, as happy to adopt the role of assassin as he is to play the role of artisan.
Having taken his time to settle, Du Toit will now have to be prised from the No 7 jersey with a crowbar.
ALL-ROUND GOOD GUY
After the final, Springbok forwards coach Matt Proudfoot sat next to Pieter-Steph du Toit in the change room. They had a quiet word together, with Proudfoot remarking to the big loosie that he hoped he would win the World Rugby award.
‘That would be really special,’ said Du Toit, who then asked what areas of his game he might improve.
It was a moment that reflected Du Toit’s drive; he had just played the game of his life and yet he still wanted to improve.
‘There’s just a pride in who he is as a man,’ says Proudfoot, who did a remarkable job with the Bok forwards. ‘If you meet him, you understand his incredible values and what sparks this. He’s very earthy, with tremendous morals. He’s from farming stock; he refuses to put in a bad performance because, to him, that’s a compromise on his values.’
The coach believes the birth of Du Toit’s son in April crystalised his focus even more.
‘He’s Pieter-Steph No 7 – his son is No 8, so that’s a strong family line. He’s a no-nonsense guy who doesn’t seek validation. He just wants to know what he’s got to do.’
Proudfoot has no doubt that playing 7 is where Du Toit belongs.
‘He’s an out and out athlete, but playing lock probably dulled his athleticism. He’s now freed up from that world – although 4, 5 and 7 operate similarly in general play, 4 and 5 are asked different questions in set phases.
‘I always knew he was a 7: he’s got momentum because he gets momentum. As a 7, his natural physicality comes to the fore. I always said he was up there defensively, but he can get better as an attacking force. I told him and he said, “coach, I wanna work on it”.
‘He’s intelligent as a leader. He doesn’t say much, but the group listens. He just puts it out there. Being a Springbok matters to him.
‘Make no mistake, he’s the leader of the pack. He instils an amazing standard. He’s so close to Eben, Siya and Frans – there’s a quiet respect between each of them. He’s got a fun streak too. He’ll relax among a small group of forwards. He has a big laugh and is just a quality human being.’