Pieter-Steph du Toit raised his game in 2018 but could become even better, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Pieter-Steph du Toit was hailed ‘a freak of nature’ by his coaches and teammates when he arrived on the Test scene in 2013. Over the next four seasons, a concerted effort was made to harness Du Toit’s physical talents at franchise level and at the Springboks.
By the end of 2017, most were in agreement that South African rugby had found its answer to All Blacks star Brodie Retallick, a no-nonsense forward with the handling skills and spatial awareness of an inside back. Like Retallick, Du Toit’s contribution was not limited by the number on his back.
One man wasn’t overly impressed by what he saw in the early stages of 2018, though. Rassie Erasmus recognised that this extraordinary player – who was already outperforming his teammates and some of his direct opponents in several departments – had even more to give.
Erasmus gave Du Toit a place in the leadership group and the Bok captaincy for the one-off Test against Wales. That push proved a masterstroke as, over the course of 2018, Du Toit took his game to a new level and challenged the perception that South African forwards are one-dimensional.
The Boks beat the All Blacks 36-34 in Wellington to end a nine-year drought on New Zealand soil. They came close to claiming consecutive wins against the old enemy in Pretoria, but lost 32-30.
Du Toit was one of the standout performers in both matches. The media and public praised Malcolm Marx and Aphiwe Dyantyi – and rightly so. In the Bok change room, however, the decision regarding the players’ player of the tournament was unanimous. Du Toit was their man. Not long after that, at the annual awards ceremony, the Stormers and Western Province named Du Toit their Player of the Year.
‘At the start of the season, I made it clear that I wanted to see more hunger from him,’ Erasmus said. ‘He is so naturally blessed, but as is often the case with players who are so good, they never have to go to the darkest places to find themselves. For me, what has been defining about him this season is that he has gone to those places, triumphed and emerged as a leader as much as a victor.’
In the buildup to the 2018 Test season, SA Rugby magazine sat down with Du Toit to chat about his growth as a player and leader. What struck me was an admission about his physical and mental state.
After a taxing Super Rugby season, Du Toit didn’t appear to be in any sort of condition to front Wales, England and subsequently Argentina, Australia and New Zealand in the Rugby Championship. Unfortunately, it is common practice for South African Super Rugby coaches to play the elite players into the ground and ultimately compromise the Boks’ chances of peaking in the latter stages of the season.
What Du Toit produced against the All Blacks in Wellington, however, was nothing short of heroic. The stat of 24 tackles tells a story regarding his effort over 80-plus minutes. That said, it doesn’t do justice to his contribution in the dying stages. The All Blacks continued to come at the Boks during that period, and the men in green and gold defended their tryline as if their lives depended on it.
After the final whistle, the camera panned across the field of battle. It found Du Toit embracing teammate Bongi Mbonambi and weeping tears of joy. That image summed up the magnitude of the Bok performance and achievement.
A few months later, Du Toit reveals that his emotional reaction represented something more. Somewhere in that game, he discovered another gear and went where he had never gone before.
‘We weren’t at our best in that series against England, so the coaches did a lot of research before the Rugby Championship to reassess the strengths of the side and to formulate a more effective game plan,’ Du Toit says. ‘In terms of recovery, I was fortunate in the sense that I got a three-week break after that series, and was a bit fresher before the start of the Rugby Championship.
‘It’s hard for me to comment on my individual performance, because it goes against what we are about at the Boks. As Rassie says, if you are always talking about what you can achieve as an individual, you are being selfish. If you are talking about yourself, it must be in the context of what you can do for the team. And to be honest, if I played well, it’s because the men beside me put me in a position to do so.
‘I will never forget that game for the rest of my life,’ he says of the landmark win in Wellington. ‘It’s right up there in terms of career highlights. The other game against the All Blacks in Pretoria is a bit different. I won’t forget that for other reasons. We had them where we wanted them, and then we let the game slip away. That one will haunt me for a long time.
‘I suppose you have to look at the bigger picture and say we have proved we can beat big sides like the All Blacks and England. We can take confidence out of results like that and build towards the World Cup. And when you are playing with confidence, suddenly those 50/50 passes start to stick. You never want for motivation when you are asked to play for the Boks, but I can confirm that the team has moved into a different space after a few of the Rugby Championship results.’
Erasmus is not the only coach responsible for Du Toit’s improvement. Defence guru Jacques Nienaber was credited in the wake of the Rugby Championship for his role in the 26-year-old’s development.
‘The coaches are getting the best out of the players,’ Du Toit says. ‘When you think about it, that is the most important thing. You could have the most talented bunch of players, but if you can’t get the best out of them and you can’t get them to buy into your game plan, you won’t get the desired results. Everyone here buys into Rassie’s plan and that has allowed us to play as a unit and score some big wins.
‘People thought I had a defensive problem,’ he adds. ‘What they forget is that we went through four defence coaches [between 2016 and 2017]. It makes a difference in terms of getting your mindset around what’s required of you. We worked hard on our tackling with Jacques in the early stages of the season. He’s a great defence coach and I feel he’s helped me a lot, especially with my technique. There’s been a big focus on skills this year – in terms of attack and defence. If you’re improving yourself as an individual, you’re improving the team. I’m pleased I’ve been able to contribute in that respect.’
The perception regarding Du Toit’s defensive flaws first surfaced after the Boks’ 37-21 loss to England at Twickenham in 2016. He started at No 7 on that occasion, and made two costly mistakes that allowed England scrumhalf Ben Youngs to make telling inroads. Afterwards, a lot of people in the know, including 2003 World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward, slammed the selection of Du Toit at flank.
‘A fine young lock, but never a back-row forward,’ Woodward wrote in his newspaper column. Renowned British writer Stephen Jones was more scathing in his assessment of Du Toit and South Africa. ‘Their lanky back row was dreadful. 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.’
Fast forward two years. Du Toit arrived in London before the clash against England a more experienced and complete player. He’d made some important contributions from the lock position during that period, but, by his own admission, was more at home on the blindside flank.
With Lood de Jager short on match fitness and Franco Mostert unavailable, Erasmus was forced to start Du Toit at No 5 at Twickenham. Over the course of the clash, however, Du Toit shifted to flank and managed to atone for the previous sins committed at the home of rugby. While the Boks failed to get over the line – losing 12-11 – Du Toit contributed with some big defensive plays late on.
Former Saracens hooker Schalk Brits was credited for providing valuable intelligence on the England players and tactics. When asked for his assessment of the Bok side’s performances in 2018, and about the evolution of the forwards in particular, the veteran provides an interesting answer.
‘I hate it when people divide us into forwards and backs,’ Brits says. ‘You can’t separate us, because the forwards create space for the backs. People will say this forward is playing too loose or whatever, but the game has evolved since I started playing in the early-2000s. Really, it blows my mind whenever the general public moan about a forward popping up in the first-receiver position. They want eight guys in every ruck! The game has moved on from that.’
Brits feels the All Blacks’ exceptional results and performances over the past decade can be linked to New Zealand’s superior talent identification and attention to skills development. South African rugby will need to make a shift to ensure more players like Du Toit realise their potential in future.
‘New Zealand are successful because their players are capable of performing similar roles even though they play in different positions. The set piece is still important, but if you look at where most of the game is played, it’s clear the focus should be on running, passing and performing at the rucks. There’s a lot more ball in play nowadays, so you need athletes to fulfil the requirements.
‘I first saw Brodie Retallick when he was playing for the New Zealand U20s,’ Brits continues. ‘He was a very exciting player at that stage. He’s evolved a great deal since then, though. I look at Retallick now and think “wow!” I look at him and ask myself how I can evolve. The role of a forward is not limited to pushing in the scrums or lifting in the lineouts any more. They need to deliver those pinpoint passes in open play. They need to be able to run and sidestep.’
Brits highlights South African rugby’s focus on physicality. Every player needs to bench or squat a specific weight. That, he argues, should only be viewed as the starting point.
Nowadays, every Test team aspires to a high standard of physicality. What you do with the ball thereafter, and how you involve forwards like Du Toit in general play, usually determines the outcome of the game.
‘You’re not going to bench anyone on the rugby field, are you?’ Brits says with a chuckle. ‘Once you have that physical base, you have to pay due attention to your skills. Your passing, your sidestep, your hand-off. You need explosive power and brute strength to succeed.
‘Pieter-Steph is a great athlete. He’s an absolute machine. Now, imagine when he gets to the point where he is passing like Retallick. Imagine the kind of space he is going to create for guys out wide. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen from him, but at the same time I’m excited about the player he can become in future.’
Heyneke Meyer came in for a lot of criticism when he picked Du Toit to start at blindside flank in the opening game of the 2015 World Cup. While the Boks went on to lose to Japan, Du Toit subsequently told SA Rugby magazine that he relished the opportunity to wear the No 7 jersey. Ever since he was a boy, he dreamed about representing the Boks in the back row.
Erasmus looks set to play Du Toit in that position when the Boks travel to Japan next year. Eben Etzebeth, De Jager, Mostert and even RG Snyman could make the final World Cup squad as specialist locks. If all those players remain fit, Du Toit will have the freedom to feature in the back row and play his natural game.
There’s a chance that, fitness permitting, Du Toit will go on to represent the Boks in the 2021 series against the British & Irish Lions and at the 2023 and 2027 World Cups. If the Boks continue in their present direction and if players like Du Toit are managed carefully, one cannot help but believe the South African approach may well rival that of New Zealand’s sooner rather than later.
– This article first appeared in the December 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.