‘Reality is I could have lost my leg’

A career-threatening injury and the Covid-19 crisis have given Pieter-Steph du Toit a new appreciation for the game, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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Pieter-Steph du Toit gets straight to the point. He doesn’t know when he will be able to run again, let alone when he will resume full training with his teammates.

In the same breath, the 2019 World Rugby Player Year explains why he is so excited about the future. He’s come through a career-threatening ordeal and has learned that he will regain full use of his injured leg. The time in lockdown has also reminded him why – in spite of all his success with the Springboks – he should cherish every game as if it’s his last.

Du Toit may owe his career to the medical team that took decisive action after he suffered a freakish leg injury in late February. Stormers team doctor Jason Suter was quick to diagnose the rare condition as a haematoma that had developed into acute compartment syndrome. Without immediate treatment, the leg could have been lost.

The 27-year-old was rushed to hospital and underwent an operation in which the vascular surgeon had to cut through the muscle to release the pressure. The swelling around the wound, however, meant that it remained open for 10 days.

When SA Rugby magazine catches up with the Bok flank, he talks about his progress and the support he’s received from his family.

‘There’s a long, hard road ahead of me,’ he says. ‘I’m just trying to stay positive. Fortunately, I’ve been keeping up with my rehab and my wife, who is a physiotherapist, has been helping me during the lockdown to ensure that I don’t lose any time.

‘It’s still uncomfortable around the muscle and it will be a while before I can get out and run properly again. I’ve lost a lot of weight during this ordeal and it will take some time to regain that. I see it as a challenge that needs to be overcome, though. At least I haven’t had to watch my teammates playing every week while I sit at home on the couch. I haven’t missed much game time yet.’

Most players have made peace with the fact that serious injury setbacks are part of the game. Du Toit has endured more than his fair share of long-term layoffs and is well aware of what can be achieved with a positive mindset.

In March 2014, Du Toit tore his anterior cruciate ligament and was ruled out for the rest of the season. A year later to the day, he injured the same knee and was told that his World Cup dream was over.

The Du Toits don’t give up easily, though, and a subsequent consultation revealed that the player could recover in time if he flew to Germany to undergo a procedure to replace the damaged ligaments. Du Toit’s father, Pieter, didn’t hesitate to donate his own ligaments to the cause. Later that year, Du Toit travelled with the Bok squad to the World Cup in England.

Du Toit suffered further setbacks between 2016 and 2019. Each time he fought back to full fitness. Each time he came back stronger and more determined to raise his game.

‘I’ve had to deal with a few big setbacks in my career, but none have been so complicated and potentially life-changing,’ he says. ‘The reality is that I could have lost my leg. I have a long scar to remind me about the incident. For a while after it happened, the wound had to remain open to allow the swelling to subside. I got a fright the first time I saw it. It wasn’t a great experience, looking at that all day, as you may imagine. At the same time, I had to be grateful when I heard that I would eventually recover and regain use of my leg. There’s a lot more to life than rugby.’

The Bok flank reiterates how fortunate he’s been to spend the lockdown period with his wife and child as well as his extended family at the Du Toit farm in Riebeek Kasteel.

‘My parents and all of my brothers are with us. You don’t wish for these things to happen, but what this time in isolation has forced us to realise is that we need to spend more time together as a family. We need to maintain those relationships. I’ve always said that rugby is not everything to me, but I rarely get a chance to spend such a lengthy spell together with my brothers and parents.’

Time away from the high performance centre and his Stormers teammates has also made him realise how much he misses the game. When he returns, he intends to make every second count.

‘None of us is going to play rugby forever,’ he says. ‘We realise that when we suffer serious injuries. The lockdown period has also forced us to think about what we would do tomorrow if the rest of the season was cancelled or if we couldn’t play again.

‘A lot of people will come out on the other side with a new mindset,’ he continues. ‘Nobody will take anything for granted ever again. If the coach tells us to do something at training, we’re going to go above and beyond. We’re going to train harder than ever before and play every game as if it’s our last. Why? Because this whole experience has shown us how it can all be taken away.’

Du Toit has won several big Tests and a couple of titles with the Boks over the past two seasons. When I ask him to highlight one game, he singles out the first match of Rassie Erasmus’ tenure. ‘We lost to Wales in the USA, but I will never forget what it felt like to captain the Boks,’ he says. ‘Hopefully I will get another chance to do so.’

That game marked the first step of an incredible journey that culminated in a World Cup title win in Japan. Du Toit is quick to point out that all the success that has come the team’s way has been hard-earned.

‘The way we trained at the Boks … it was beyond intense. Having said that, it was not the type of situation where players thought it was unfair or unwarranted. We all bought into the idea from the outset, and when the work needed to be done, we committed wholeheartedly. Everything was so well planned and everyone was aware of their roles. It made it easier to perform on game days after putting all that hard work in beforehand.’

Like when Du Toit hunted down flyhalf George Ford repeatedly in the World Cup final? The Boks went into that game with a structured plan on defence, but it was interesting to note how often Du Toit and Faf de Klerk shot out of alignment to kill England’s attacking momentum.

‘Sometimes you make mistakes,’ he says of his approach in that monumental fixture. ‘You’ve got to back yourself, though, and it helps to know you have the backing of your teammates. Our scramble defence was nothing short of awesome at the World Cup. That showed where we were as a group and how we all played for one another.

‘A few of the Boks who had been in that situation before told us to go out and savour every moment of the final. They said that the game would pass by in a blur. I couldn’t believe how quickly it was over. We were standing on the podium with the World Cup and it felt like I was in a dream. It was only the next day, when I walked down to the hotel lobby and saw the guys, that it started to sink in that we are world champions.’

And now the opportunity to be part of a series involving the British & Irish Lions beckons. Du Toit was 15 the last time the composite side from the home nations toured South Africa.

‘2009 is a long time ago, but a couple of moments still stand out in my memory. Heinrich Brussow got hold of one of the Lions in a tackle and flung the player away like he was a bag of potatoes. That kind of summed up the physical approach of the Boks in that series. Then there that was try Jaque Fourie scored in the second Test at Loftus, where he finished in the corner to bring the Boks back into the game. That was a terrific comeback.

‘I think that the series in 2021 is going to be bigger than the World Cup,’ he says with some excitement. ‘Again, I have spoken to a lot of past players who have shared their experiences of 1997 and 2009. They’ve told me that the pressure to perform and win in a Lions series is greater than it is at World Cup because a Lions series is staged in South Africa only once every 12 years. If you blow that chance, you probably won’t get another shot in your career.

‘It was incredible to hear the guys talking about that series so soon after the World Cup final. That kind of showed where we are as a team and what we believe we can achieve beyond the success in Japan. Most of us are still young and some are relatively inexperienced, but everyone in the group is on the same emotional level. Everyone understands what needs to be done. Despite the World Cup win, everyone wants to be part of that series against the Lions and I’m sure that motivation in the buildup won’t be a problem.’

*This feature appeared in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, now on sale.

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Pieter-Steph du Toit and his brothers – Johan, Anton and Daniel – have been dreaming about representing the Springboks since they were very young.

‘We often used to speak about what it would be like if all four of us could play in the same team, possibly even for South Africa,’ Pieter-Steph says. ‘Johan and I have spoken about it more and more over the past few months as he’s made his way through the Stormers ranks and started regularly at Super Rugby level.

‘You’re never going to be as close to your teammates as you are to your own brothers. You have an idea about what your brother is going to do, a natural feeling for how he is going to respond in each situation. That came through on the field when Johan and I played together for the Stormers.’

Anton du Toit played fullback for Maties in the Varsity Cup this year and may force his way into the Stormers set-up before long. Pieter-Steph, however, wonders if the Du Toit quartet will ever realise its collective dream.

‘There will be injury setbacks and we might not all play at the same level at the same time. So whenever I get an opportunity to live part of that dream, as I did alongside Johan, I cherish it.’

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