Confirmation that Pieter-Steph du Toit will be sidelined for at least three months raises questions about South Africa’s depth and options at blindside flank, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Stormers held a media conference in Bellville on Tuesday. The team doctor outlined the processes that have been implemented to test for – and, when necessary, contain – the coronavirus.
Dr Jason Suter then proceeded to detail the injuries of the franchise’s Springbok players. News of Du Toit’s situation, and indeed all the player had been through over the past few weeks, hit like a sledgehammer.
John Dobson spoke briefly on the matter, but his summation put it all into perspective. ‘Pieter-Steph almost lost his leg,’ the coach said. ‘It would have been devastating for the player and for rugby as a whole.’
Indeed, an amputation would have brought Du Toit’s magnificent career to a cruel and tragic end. The versatile player has won the SA Rugby Player award three times in the past four years, and was named World Rugby’s Player of the Year in 2019 for his contributions to the Springboks’ successful Rugby Championship and World Cup campaigns.
In one sense, he has nothing left to achieve on the international stage. And yet, at the age of 27, it would be fair to say that he is only entering the prime of his career.
The Boks turned a corner in 2019. What’s more, they laid the platform for future successes when one considers that leaders such as Du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Handre Pollard and others will still be in their prime come the 2023 World Cup.
Du Toit certainly owes Suter and the Stormers medical team a debt for the quick diagnosis of a problematic injury that may have resulted in the loss of his leg. So often you hear about players who struggle with leg and back injuries towards the end of their careers and how those ailments compromise their transition into life after rugby. Consider how difficult it would have been for Du Toit and his young family had he lost his leg in those circumstances.
South African rugby as a whole owes Suter and his team a debt of gratitude. The Boks, let alone the Stormers, will need Du Toit and his wide range of abilities in the coming years. There may be some strong candidates for back-row positions, but there are none who boast the same combination of athleticism and physical determination in that blindside role.
The Stormers have confirmed that Du Toit will be sidelined for at least three months. It remains to be seen what will happen with regard to the Vodacom Super Rugby tournament, and whether the 2020 edition of the tournament will be completed or cancelled. If concerns around the coronavirus continue to limit interaction and the staging of big events, there may be no international rugby this July and the subsequent Rugby Championship may also be canned.
At some point, however, the game will resume and the Bok brains trust will have to consider who else has the ability to start at blindside flank. It would surprise me to see Du Toit returning for the Tests against Scotland – if they go ahead at all – and so the coaches may be forced to experiment at No 7 from the outset.
Francois Louw travelled to the World Cup last year as the official cover for all three back-row positions. The veteran has since retired, and so Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber will have to back other players with the long-term aim of bolstering the Boks’ depth.
Duane Vermeulen has expressed his desire to represent the Boks in 2020 as the team builds toward the series against the British & Irish Lions in 2021. The side won’t want for No 8 alternatives, though, with Kolisi himself being talked up as an option at the back of the scrum. Sikhumbuzo Notshe has been the form No 8 among the teams based in South Africa this season, and with a bit more work Juarno Augustus could become a force on the Test stage.
Kwagga Smith started at No 6 in the injury-enforced absence of Kolisi in the 2019 Rugby Championship, and in a couple of matches at the subsequent World Cup. If the 2020 season progresses as planned – and again, it’s looking unlikely – Smith may switch to sevens with the aim of winning an Olympic medal with the Blitzboks.
In that event, Marco van Staden may prove a useful alternative to Kolisi at openside flank. James Venter and Jaco Coetzee have been impressive in this year’s Super Rugby tournament, and it would be great to see them joining the wider squad and being groomed for higher honours.
Who, though, will replace Du Toit if the man with an engine as big as his heart is unavailable to play?
Erasmus brought Rynhardt Elstadt and Marcell Coetzee back from Europe last season. While Elstadt has the physique and the ability to play lock and blindside, he has been utiltised – and to good effect –as an openside for French club Toulouse.
Coetzee made a big impact during a short space of time for the Boks last year, and could replace Louw in the sense that he covers 6, 7 and 8. How much will the Boks have to alter their gameplan, though, if Coetzee steps in for Du Toit at blindside? Would Jean-Luc du Preez, currently playing for Sale in England, add value with his ability to win the gainline and offload in contact?
Tyler Paul has done a fair job for the Sharks – South Africa’s top-performing and most balanced Super Rugby franchise in 2020. Youngsters such as Vincent Tshitsuka and Sintu Manjezi have potential but are still very raw. Sooner or later, though, the Bok coaches will have to groom a successor to Du Toit.
The other option is to shift existing squad members to their alternate positions to accommodate new players. Vermeulen began his career as a blindside for the Cheetahs and Stormers, and has served at No 7 for the Boks in the past. One would prefer to see Vermeulen – the standout No 8 in world rugby last season and the Man of the Match in the 2019 World Cup final – focusing on No 8, though.
We don’t know when rugby will resume. It may be that Du Toit has made a full recovery and returned to training by the time the ban on mass gatherings and sporting events has been lifted.
That said, these are questions that Erasmus and Nienaber will have to answer sooner rather than later. Indeed, even if Du Toit regains full fitness he cannot be expected to play every match for club and country right up to the 2023 World Cup.