Du Toit’s a beacon of light

Pieter-Steph du Toit has been a consistent performer for the Springboks in a difficult season, and is deserving of the 2016 SA Rugby Player of the Year award, writes JON CARDINELLI​.

The rise and rise of Pieter-Steph du Toit in 2016 has been impossible to ignore. Indeed, while the Stormers stagnated in this year’s Super Rugby competition and the Springboks plunged to new depths with historic losses to Ireland and Argentina, one player lifted his game and emerged with his reputation enhanced.

These may be dark times for South African rugby. But in taking his game to new heights, Du Toit is providing long-suffering fans and stakeholders with a ray of light.

It’s worth reflecting on the comments made by the player himself in the lead-up to the 2016 season. In an interview with SA Rugby magazine, Du Toit spoke frankly about his goals with the Stormers and the Boks.

‘My dream is to play my best rugby this season,’ he said. And after enjoying an extended run with the Cape side and surviving a couple of injury scares, few would argue that Du Toit is starting to explore the depth of his talents on the Test stage.

Former national coach Heyneke Meyer famously said Du Toit would go on to become one of the greatest Boks of all time. More recently, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt singled out Du Toit as the most dangerous player in the Bok lineup.

The latter statement was made in the wake of Ireland’s monumental 26-20 win at Newlands. Schmidt pointed out that Du Toit, who had come off the bench in the second half, so nearly swung the result in the Boks’ favour with a series of influential contributions with ball in hand.

‘He’s a great player with amazing athleticism,’ said Schmidt. ‘He makes a big impact physically and he has great hands too. When I spoke to [Ireland flyhalf] Paddy Jackson after the game, he immediately apologised for giving away that intercept pass. He had no idea how long Pieter-Steph’s arms actually were … It was a heroic reach and catch, which gave the Boks a sniff at the end. Luckily we were able to hold on for the win.’

A week later in Johannesburg, Du Toit featured prominently in a late fightback that culminated in a 32-26 win for the Boks. Having started at No 5 lock, he shifted to blindside flank in the latter stages and scored a crucial try for the hosts. The Boks went on to win the series decider in Port Elizabeth a week later.

‘Our first-half performance at Ellis Park was a shocker. The crowd booed us off the field and I think we deserved it,’ an emotional Du Toit said in the wake of the second Test. ‘I never doubted we could still win the game, though. We had a mindset change when we came on after half-time and everyone lifted their game. We went back to our game plan, got over the advantage line, and provided better opportunities for the backs to attack.’

While the team’s performances against Ireland and subsequently Argentina left a lot to be desired, Du Toit maintained a high standard throughout. The versatile forward made an impact against Argentina in Nelspruit to help the Boks secure a face-saving 30-23 win. He made a similar contribution when he scored in the next game in Salta, although it wasn’t enough to spare the Boks a shocking defeat.

One of the most important questions that was asked after the two Tests against Argentina was why Du Toit, one of South Africa’s form players, featured in just 62 out of a possible 180 minutes. What’s been clear is that Bok coach Allister Coetzee doesn’t know how best to accommodate the talents of Du Toit, Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager in the same match-day squad. While all three deserve to be there, the decision to play Du Toit from the bench is limiting his impact and the potency of the side as a whole. Either one of those locks need to make way for Du Toit, or he needs to be included in the back row.

South Africa are not short of lock options. Franco Mostert was one of the standout players for the Lions in their 2016 Super Rugby campaign. JD Schickerling of the Stormers and RG Snyman and Jason Jenkins of the Bulls appear to be destined for higher honours, while Jacques du Plessis of Montpellier is another who has delivered consistently in recent times and can’t be too far away from a national call-up.

The Boks don’t have the same depth in the back row. Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen were sidelined with injuries in the lead-up to the 2016 Rugby Championship, while Schalk Burger declared himself unavailable for the tournament. As a result, Coetzee brought Oupa Mohoje back into the Test side to do a job at blindside flank and named Du Toit as his official understudy. One needs to remember that Coetzee was initially against the idea of moving Du Toit to flank.

Du Toit won his first Test start in that position in 2015. That World Cup group fixture ended in a humiliating defeat to Japan and many subsequently questioned Meyer’s decision to move Du Toit to No 7. However, the player still has mixed feelings when reflecting on the experience. In a recent interview with SA Rugby magazine, he said the opportunity against Japan represented the realisation of a lifelong dream.

‘I always wanted to play flank when I was younger,’ he said. ‘I dreamed about it for a long time. It goes to show, be careful what you wish for. I’m happy to play wherever.’

The current crop of Bok coaches agree with Meyer. They believe Du Toit could go on to become a special player for South Africa.

The big question is, in what capacity. Where will he settle over the next few seasons, and what number will appear on his back when he takes the field at the 2019 World Cup in Japan? Whatever the final decision, it’s clear Du Toit deserves more than a 30-minute cameo at the end of a Test, and that the team as a whole will benefit from him enjoying an extended run as a starter.

– This article first appeared in the October edition of SA Rugby magazine.

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