Pieter-Steph du Toit is set to play a key role for the Springboks in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Pieter-Steph du Toit is no stranger to facing challenges head on and finding ways to overcome the odds. Although just 25, Du Toit has already stared down five serious injuries at senior level, which threatened to derail a career that always appeared destined for greatness. However, it’s such setbacks that have shaped him as a person and player, while eventually leading him back to where it all began, in Cape Town.
When SA Rugby magazine catches up with Du Toit just before the Springboks’ end-of-year tour, it’s abundantly apparent throughout the conversation that his fitness and form on the field have also been happily counter-balanced by fulfilment away from the game. In many ways, the past 24 months have been a career-defining period for Du Toit, and his journey up to this point provides fascinating insight into the character of the Stormers and Springbok strongman.
Du Toit grew up in a rugby family, with his grandfather Piet ‘Spiere’ du Toit featuring in 14 Tests between 1958 and 1961. His raw strength set him apart from most counterparts of that amateur era and earned him legendary status.
‘I saw photos of my grandfather as a Springbok and I remember visiting him in Hermanus; he was such a strong guy who always picked us up as kids,’ Du Toit reminisces fondly. ‘The most impressive thing for me is that he was a prop, but he was built like I am, and nowadays you don’t see that much any more.’
Along with his younger brother Johan – who is now also at the Stormers – Pieter-Steph developed an early affinity for rugby, while striking plenty of fear into his primary school opponents as a brawny farm boy who towered over many of his peers.
‘Even from a young age, I had a dream of becoming a Springbok,’ Du Toit says. ‘I remember that when my family and I were having a braai, I’d look at the stars and make a wish that I’d achieve that dream.’
However, Du Toit admits that a professional rugby career initially appeared to be nothing more than a pipe dream during a couple of relatively unheralded years at the start of his high school career in the Swartland.
‘I didn’t want to play lock at school, but I was told I had to play there if I wanted a future in rugby. In Grade 11, I told the coach I didn’t want to play lock after being picked in that position, and he said, “OK, no, that’s fine,” but before I knew it I had been dropped to the 2nd XV,’ Du Toit says with a chuckle.
However, it wasn’t long before he was drafted back into the 1st XV – albeit after ‘making peace’ with playing lock in matric – and suddenly, a star was born. Besides featuring for Boland at Craven Week and winning a place in the SA Schools team in 2010, Du Toit caught the attention of the Sharks, who offered him the opportunity to head to Durban after school.
‘When I got to the Sharks, I went straight into the U21 set-up, and in my second year I was drafted into the SA U20s,’ Du Toit reflects. ‘I had put a lot of pressure on myself to perform and make the Super Rugby squad for the Sharks that year , and was very disappointed when I missed out, but it just wasn’t my time. Instead, that spell with the SA U20s was such a memorable experience as we went on to win the tournament [with Du Toit starting at flank when the Junior Boks beat New Zealand in the final].’
Du Toit returned to the Sharks to make his Super Rugby run-on debut towards the end of the 2012 season, and the next year he earned his first Test cap against Wales in November, which came just a couple of weeks after starring for the Sharks in their Currie Cup final win over Western Province. However, injuries then began to stall the meteoric rise of the young star.
‘I had five serious injuries at the Sharks in as many years and it was really tough,’ he says. ‘I suffered two ankle injuries, I cracked my sternum and then had two knee injuries. The Sharks have a brilliant medical staff and they got me through, and I’ll always be grateful to everyone there for that. In many ways, they’ve helped make me who I am today.’
That last knee injury nearly cost Du Toit his place in the Boks’ 2015 World Cup squad, but in a unique medical procedure, ligaments from his father Pieter’s hamstring were used to successfully repair the damage. When looking back at his injury struggles, which played a major role in keeping him out of the Bok squad throughout 2014 and for most of 2015, Du Toit paints a philosophical picture.
‘Rugby has a funny way about it. As one friend told me, it’s like taking your two children to an ice cream shop and telling them they’re both going to get an ice cream, but then you take it away from one and give it to the other to eat. That’s how rugby is, it gives you stuff, and it takes it away. It’s something I’ve learned, and in that regard I’m even grateful for the injuries I’ve had because they also made me the person I am today, and taught me how to truly appreciate being able to play injury-free.’
As fate would have it, at the same time that Du Toit was battling injury and desperately trying to win a place in the World Cup squad, he also faced what he describes as the ‘most difficult decision of his life’. Having previously turned down the possible opportunity to join Western Province and the Stormers in 2013, he received another enticing offer two years later – with his desire to return ‘home’ conflicting with his desire to repay the Sharks for the loyalty they’d shown him throughout his injury recovery.
‘It was a really difficult time,’ Du Toit reiterates. ‘I had sleepless nights over the decision and my girlfriend, Willemien – who is now my wife – was overseas at the time, so we couldn’t speak properly about it. I struggled to decide what the right thing to do was, but looking back now, I’m glad I made the move. I’ve thankfully managed to remain injury-free, and I’m really enjoying my rugby and being in the Cape again.’
Interestingly, good friend and now Springbok captain Eben Etzebeth played a key role in that final decision, with the Stormers stalwart not only putting in a good word for Du Toit, but also encouraging him to make the move.
‘At that time, I think he knew what I wanted to do and it showed he had my best interests at heart,’ Du Toit says. ‘Eben is a fantastic guy and I think sometimes people have the wrong idea about him. He’s such a great guy on and off the field, and puts his friends and family before anything else.’
Du Toit’s return to the Cape coincided with a long-awaited spell of injury-free rugby, with the abrasive forward going on to be named SA Rugby’s 2016 Player of the Year after a string of standout performances for the Stormers and the Springboks. Besides his success on the field, Du Toit also got married towards the end of 2015 and returned to work on the family’s wine and olive farm in Riebeek-Kasteel, which remains his passion.
‘Not being injured last year enabled me to play with a bit more freedom and confidence, and I found myself enjoying my rugby again,’ he says. ‘Off the field, it also helped a lot to be near to my family and the farm, and reconnect with old friends.’
Du Toit went on to feature prominently for the Stormers in Super Rugby earlier this year, but with his form wavering at times, and Lions star Franco Mostert emerging as a force to be reckoned with, he predominantly fulfilled a role off the bench at the start of the Test season.
Yet, when his chance came to start against Australia in Perth, he grabbed it with both hands by producing a blockbusting performance as the Boks went on to clinch a commendable draw.
‘Playing off the bench isn’t always easy, but every player wants to start and you ultimately have to do what’s best for the team,’ Du Toit says. ‘I just tried to perform as well as possible off the bench and impress the coaches. We’ve got a saying in the squad that you can only play yourself out of the team, and with everyone playing well, it was obviously difficult to get a chance. Luckily, I got a start in Australia and I think my confidence grew from that. I also had to remind myself I was the SA Player of the Year in 2016 and I needed to keep backing myself.’
That was the attitude Du Toit took into the final game of the Rugby Championship, which saw him deployed in the less-familiar blindside flank position. His two previous outings in that role had come in inauspicious defeats to Japan at the 2015 World Cup and against England last year. Yet he emphatically silenced any doubters with a standout performance as the Boks came within a couple of points of causing a massive upset against the All Blacks in Cape Town.
‘It was quite funny; before the game against Japan I was meant to be on the bench to cover lock, but then Willem Alberts got injured and suddenly I had to come in on the flank even though I hadn’t trained there all week,’ he recalls. ‘So you can imagine that it’s quite difficult to suddenly be thrown into a new job and being asked to do it for one day. It wasn’t a good day for the team, and obviously against England it was another disappointing result. We struggled defensively, and I know everyone talks about their No 9 [Ben Youngs] who got past me twice, but I’ll take that on the chin.’
Having also absorbed the lessons from those disappointments, Du Toit’s versatility and ability to play at lock and flank have made him an especially valuable weapon for the Boks and Stormers. It’s a utility role he says he is happy to fulfil.
‘I will play wherever the team needs me, although down the line I may need to have a discussion to see where they want me to settle, so I can focus on just that role. But right now, all I want to do is play as much as possible and just enjoy my rugby without being injured.’
DU TOIT ON …
HIS PASSION FOR THE FAMILY FARM
‘I love the farm. I go there every Wednesday and there’s a lot of work to do. I think there’s a great deal of potential in terms of what we can develop on the farm. I enjoy having something to do away from the game. Family and friends are also obviously very important to me, so it’s been great to be back here in the Cape to be able to reconnect with them.’
THE SPRINGBOKS’ CULTURE
‘I think a lot of people can see there is a happy, healthy environment at the Boks, and if that can be seen from the outside, our goal has almost been achieved from a culture point of view. The first thing we did was fix the culture, because then you have something to fall back on when things don’t go well. We’ve played some good rugby this year, and could have beaten the All Blacks and Australia in both the games we drew with them.’
PLAYING ALONGSIDE GOOD FRIEND EBEN ETZEBETH
‘It’s been a great experience and learning curve playing with him; he’s one of the youngest guys to have played so many Tests. When you stand there, facing the haka against the All Blacks, it’s quite nice to have a big guy like him next to you.’
– This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine