Pieter-Steph du Toit – South Africa's standout player in 2016 – needs to be managed carefully in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
‘The ball-in-play time has increased significantly over the past few years. In 2015, there were a few Tests in which the ball was in play for as much as 45 minutes. That demands a lot from your locks, and especially from your No 5, who is usually expected to play 80 minutes.’
That statement was made by Springbok assistant coach Johann van Graan before the 2016 season. Back then, coaches and players around the world were gearing up for the fastest and most demanding season to date.
In 2017, World Rugby will implement new laws with the aim of boosting ball-in-play time to unprecedented heights. Once more, forwards and backs will need to adjust their fitness and skill levels accordingly.
That shouldn’t be an issue for players based in New Zealand or any other country that has a central-contracting system. Indeed, the All Blacks have set the standard in terms of conditioning and handling in recent years. A big feature of their game has been the ball-carrying and passing prowess of their tight forwards – locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock in particular.
So how far behind are the Boks? The bad news is that it will be some time before a nationwide conditioning strategy produces significant results. The good news is that South Africa already possesses a second rower who can go toe-to-toe with the aforementioned Kiwi giants.
The numbers support the argument that Pieter-Steph du Toit was the Stormers’ and Boks’ standout performer in 2016. While the Cape franchise fell at the first playoff hurdle and the Boks finished the season with a four-from-12 record, the quality of Du Toit’s all-round performances were some consolation.
DU TOIT VS NEW ZEALAND'S BEST
How the Bok workorse fared in comparison to Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock in 2016
‘All around the world, locks have had to become more balanced in their approach,’ says Van Graan, who worked with the Bok lineout and attack this past season. ‘It’s not just about the lineouts or the kick-offs any more. A lock needs to be able to carry, defend and compete at the rucks. South Africa is blessed with some outstanding locks and Pieter-Steph was brilliant in 2016.
‘He has a big engine in him. The role of the lock has changed and many players around the world have adapted, but Pieter-Steph is something special. He will play 80 minutes, and you will see him actively involved at every lineout, maul and scrum. His biggest strength, though, is his ball-carrying ability. He reminds me of [former Bok and Bulls utility forward] Danie Rossouw. He wants the ball in his hands. Whether he plays at No 4, 5, or 7, he is going to make an impact. That’s why he’s been so valuable to the Boks in recent times, and why he will be an important player heading into the next World Cup.’
Du Toit was named Player of the Year at the SA Rugby Awards ceremony held in October. After featuring in only 40 first-class matches between 2012 and 2015, the 24-year-old managed to avoid serious injury throughout 2016 and produced his best rugby to date.
‘We always knew he was a special talent, but there was a question about his consistency,’ says Stormers coach Robbie Fleck. ‘Before 2016, he couldn’t string consecutive games together. But all credit to him, he came down to Cape Town and set to work with a positive attitude. He came through the pre-season with some confidence and then just continued to grow in stature as the campaign progressed.’
The fact that the game and the role of a tight forward have changed is not lost on Fleck. Du Toit was brought to the Stormers to boost their attack. Even so, the young lock exceeded expectations in his first year with the Cape franchise.
‘He may have an appetite for the graft in the trenches, but he was born to carry,’ says Fleck. ‘It comes naturally to him, as a retreaded flank. It does help if your forwards can play that kind of game. Ultimately, it will ensure you get more width on attack.
‘If you look at how the All Blacks have played in recent times, and even at how the Chiefs have played in Super Rugby, you have to give credit to a player like Brodie Retallick,’ adds Fleck. ‘While he carries a lot of ball, he makes a lot of passes and is one of their key playmakers. Pieter-Steph is in the same mould, although I’d like to see him, as well as all our forwards, improve their passing over the next few months.’
While Du Toit made more passes (71) than Retallick (59) and Whitelock (46) over the course of the 2016 Super Rugby tournament, Fleck’s point stands regarding Retallick’s status as a secondary distributor, especially when one takes the Rugby Championship figures into account. The All Blacks backed Retallick in that playmaking role, and the lock responded by making 30 passes. Du Toit did not enjoy the same responsibility in a different South African game plan and only completed 16 passes during his Rugby Championship campaign.
That said, the South African did rack up some impressive ball-carrying numbers in both tournaments. In some instances, he was a cut above the two best locks on the planet (see sidebar for comparison).
While Du Toit and Retallick enjoyed a similar amount of game time in the Super Rugby tournament, the South African made more than twice as many carries, offloads and metres. Retallick was more efficient in that he needed fewer carries to break the line, but then Du Toit’s work rate on attack and defence (he completed 132 tackles) was nothing short of superhuman.
Du Toit and Eben Etzebeth effected more steals at the lineout than any other player in the Super Rugby tournament. While the Boks battled to get results, their lineout proved a consistent source of attacking possession, thanks largely to Du Toit’s leadership.
‘Some people won’t realise how big a year it was for him,’ says Van Graan, who has been working with Du Toit at Test level since before his debut in 2013. ‘He started his first Test match at No 5 against Ireland in that June series. Later in the season, he was tasked with calling the lineouts in New Zealand for the first time, and he did brilliantly. What people need to understand is that New Zealand have the best lineout system in the world. Obviously there were other individuals who stood out, but again, that’s a tribute to Pieter-Steph’s leadership. He will only get better with experience.’
Serious injuries denied Du Toit a consistent run with the Boks between 2013 and 2015. Before the 2016 season, his only start was at blindside flank against Japan in the infamous opening World Cup pool match in Brighton.
The management of Du Toit during the 2016 Test season left a lot to be desired. He was backed to start at No 5 in five Tests (see sidebar). He started three Tests in a row for the first time in his career in the Rugby Championship.
Before the clash against England at Twickenham, Du Toit was shifted to blindside flank. He was crucified by the media and public after two defensive errors led to tries for the hosts. In the wake of the Boks’ 37-21 defeat, however, former World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward shifted the blame to Allister Coetzee and the Bok coaching team by describing Du Toit as ‘a fine young lock, but never a back-row forward’ in his newspaper column.
South African rugby needs to manage one of its most valuable assets more carefully over the next three years. Du Toit needs to start regularly for the Boks and must head into the 2019 World Cup with 40 caps or more. Experience is key at global tournaments.
The powers that be have to back him at lock and ensure he is managed to peak in the biggest Tests. Du Toit played 1 056 out of a possible 1 280 minutes for the Stormers in 2016. While he outperformed most of his Bok teammates on the end-of-year tour to Europe, his stats were not as impressive as those that were recorded in the preceding Rugby Championship. Evidently, the heavy workload took its toll and diluted his potency at the end of a long season.
Van Graan believes a long-term approach to player management must be adopted sooner rather than later.
‘Conditioning is crucial in professional sport. As determined as Pieter-Steph is, you have to consider that he’s played a lot for his franchise and for the Boks this past season. I suspect he will play 80 minutes more often than not in 2017,’ Van Graan says.
‘You want him to be at his mental and physical peak for the biggest games of the season and to be at his best come the 2019 World Cup. There have been a lot of discussions about conditioning recently, and hopefully the right structures will be put in place to ensure we get the best out of the players.’
DU TOIT'S TEST APPEARANCES
L = starting lock, F = starting flank, (L) = reserve lock, (F) = reserve flank
2013: 2 Tests
(L) vs Wales, Cardiff
(F) vs France, Paris
2014: 0 Tests
2015: 6 Tests
(L) vs Argentina, Durban
(F) vs Argentina, Buenos Aires
F vs Japan, Brighton
(L) vs Scotland, Newcastle
(L) vs USA, London
(L) vs Wales, London
2016: 12 Tests
(L) vs Ireland, Cape Town
L vs Ireland, Johannesburg
L vs Ireland, Port Elizabeth
(L) vs Argentina, Nelspruit
(L) vs Argentina, Salta
(L) vs Australia, Brisbane
L vs New Zealand, Christchurch
L vs Australia, Pretoria
L vs New Zealand, Durban
F vs England, London
L vs Italy, Florence
L vs Wales, Cardiff
Caps: 20 (9 starts, 11 bench)
Starts by position: No 5 lock: 5 No 4 lock: 2 No 7 flank: 2
– This article first appeared in the January 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine