Pieter-Steph du Toit’s adaptability makes him a big asset for the Springboks, writes JON CARDINELLI in SA Rugby magazine.
Pieter-Steph du Toit laughs. The question regarding his preferred position doesn’t bother him, not in the least. In fact, one of South Africa’s most skilled and versatile players views the inevitable enquiry as an opportunity to speak about a philosophy that’s been, until fairly recently, the preserve of New Zealand’s top forwards.
‘I’ll play anywhere, but if you ask me straight, my answer is flank,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I like flank a bit more, because I get to carry the ball and influence the game more in open play. The big difference between No 5 and 7 is that the former usually plays a role in the middle of the field. At flank, I can go wherever the space is and hopefully get my team over the advantage line.’
This doesn’t mean Du Toit, or other gifted South African locks like Lood de Jager and Franco Mostert, will be limited to a traditional role in the coming years. All Blacks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are but two players who have challenged perceptions and refused to be limited by traditional expectations of what a lock, or even a Test forward, should be.
‘Sometimes players will surprise coaches with what they can do, and sooner or later that can become integrated into the team’s style of play,’ Du Toit says. ‘Brodie and Sam have got something special and I get the feeling their strengths have been harnessed rather than developed. I don’t think it’s been a case of the coaches telling them to go out and play that way from day one.
‘Someone who thinks outside the box – like Reds tighthead prop Taniela Tupou, who broke down the left wing and set up a great try against the Hurricanes earlier this season – is always going to try to raise the bar. In a few years’ time, maybe all props will have that skill set. Rugby is constantly changing. People talk about the X factor, but it’s not a destination. You’re always looking to ascend to the next level.’
Du Toit has been used at No 4, 5, 7 and even at 8 by the Boks since making his Test debut in 2013. Towards the end of 2017, he was starting regularly at blindside flank and was particularly explosive in the final Rugby Championship game against the All Blacks in Cape Town.
At the time, Bok forwards coach Matt Proudfoot brushed aside suggestions that Du Toit was starting to make one particular jersey his own. This was when the Boks were spoilt for choice at lock, with Eben Etzebeth, De Jager, Mostert and Du Toit all fit and available for selection.
‘He’s not a player who has to be stuck in one position,’ Proudfoot said. ‘He’s a tremendous athlete. The more freedom he has to get his hands on the ball, the better. He’s an unbelievable ball-carrier with excellent acceleration, especially when breaking off the scrums.’
Etzebeth sustained a serious injury in the final match of the 2017 season, against Wales, and was sidelined for the first part of the 2018 Super Rugby competition. The Stormers lost another key lock in JD Schickerling, so Du Toit was asked to call the lineouts and fulfil the other No 5 duties.
‘It would have been nice if JD and Eben were fit and I could focus on flank,’ Du Toit says. ‘They bring a lot of confidence to the side and having them in the mix allowed me a bit more freedom to play my natural game. Maybe our campaign would have panned out differently if they were fit. I played a few games at 7 at the start of the season, and was starting to hit my stride as far as decision-making was concerned. I felt I was getting into the game on my own terms.
‘That said, I realise injuries are a part of rugby and plans can change at franchise and national levels. Lood was probably the favourite to play No 5 against England [before he sustained a pectoral tear while on Super Rugby duty and was sidelined for six months]. I accept that more responsibility will fall to myself and Franco at 5 this season. It is something I have done at the Stormers and Boks. I will do that job to the best of my ability.
‘At the same time, I won’t let the number on my back change me too much in terms of the way I want to play and express myself,’ he adds.
Rassie Erasmus was always going to select an experimental side for the one-off Test against Wales in June. The Springbok coach made an interesting statement, however, after announcing that Du Toit would lead the team against the Dragons in Washington DC.
‘Pieter-Steph is a good leader,’ said Erasmus. ‘I spoke to him at length at the alignment camp earlier in the season and after those discussions, I feel he has the potential to become a more permanent captain in future.’
At the time, Du Toit spoke about what an honour it was to lead the Boks. Looking beyond the exhibition fixture in the US, he lauded the decision to elevate Siya Kolisi for the duration of the England series.
‘It was the obvious choice to make Siya captain,’ he said. ‘As his teammate at the Stormers, I know what a great leader he is. He’s a champion person off the field too. It’s a great privilege to be handed the captaincy with a guy like him.’
Erasmus appears to be assembling a leadership group that can take the Boks through to the 2019 World Cup and beyond. Du Toit tells SA Rugby magazine that he’s thrilled with his status as a senior player, and he hopes to leave his mark on the less experienced players in the group.
‘I remember in the early days when a senior player said “well done” or offered me some advice during the game or afterwards. It meant the world to me.
It gives you confidence as a young player when you have that acknowledgment from someone you look up to. You will do everything in your power to try to find something extra.
‘It’s something I’m mindful of now that I’ve been around for a while. I want to help younger players and give them that lift. Maybe it can help them reach for that little bit extra that makes a big difference in a game situation.’
The Boks made history for all the wrong reasons under coach Allister Coetzee in 2016 and 2017. While it’s hoped Erasmus will set the side on the right track, it’s too early to be talking about this team as Rugby Championship and indeed 2019 World Cup contenders.
‘Every year we say, “This is the year”, “This is our time to make a mark,”’ says Du Toit. ‘We set out to be successful in 2016 and again in 2017, and unfortunately that didn’t happen. It’s not enough to say we will make a mark this year. We have to make changes through our performances and results.
‘This is a massive period as it’s the year before the World Cup. Building some momentum and confidence is so important. You can’t go into a World Cup and expect to succeed when you didn’t do at all well in the preceding three years.
‘I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen of Rassie during the initial stages of his tenure, though,’ Du Toit adds. ‘It’s still early days, and he’s still trying to get people on the same page. What I like is that Rassie is not about individuals. There’s no room for guys who think they have a right to be there, or guys who believe they are better than everyone else. It doesn’t matter if you’re a senior player or a rookie.
‘At this point, Rassie just wants everyone to pull together. After a while, though, he may decide which individuals he needs to back to take the team forward. Roles may change over the next year or so. It’s a good plan when you think about it, because everyone starts at the bottom.’
Erasmus may eventually build a game plan around multi-talented players like Du Toit. Going by the coach’s recent comments, the number on this player’s
back will be less important than the time he spends on the park.
‘Sometimes people tag players as a jack of all trades and a master of none,’ said Erasmus. ‘That is not the case with Pieter-Steph. He can start at No 5 and he can start at blindside flank. My philosophy is that each player must take responsibility for his position and must work extremely hard with that one goal in mind: to make the Springboks successful again.’
WHERE DU TOIT HAS PLAYED FOR BOKS
vs WALES, Cardiff: Reserve lock
vs FRANCE, Paris: Reserve flank
vs ARGENTINA, Durban: Reserve lock
vs ARGENTINA, Buenos Aires: Reserve flank
vs JAPAN, Brighton: Flank
vs SCOTLAND, Newcastle: Reserve lock
vs USA, London: Reserve lock
vs WALES, London: Reserve lock
vs IRELAND, Cape Town: Reserve lock
vs IRELAND, Johannesburg: Lock
vs IRELAND, Port Elizabeth: Lock
vs ARGENTINA, Nelspruit: Reserve lock
vs ARGENTINA, Salta: Reserve lock
vs AUSTRALIA, Brisbane: Reserve lock
vs NEW ZEALAND, Christchurch: Lock
vs AUSTRALIA, Pretoria: Lock
vs NEW ZEALAND, Durban: Lock
vs ENGLAND, London: Flank
vs ITALY, Florence: Lock
vs WALES, Cardiff: Lock
vs FRANCE, Pretoria: Reserve lock
vs FRANCE, Durban: Reserve lock
vs FRANCE, Johannesburg: Reserve No 8
vs ARGENTINA, Port Elizabeth: Reserve lock
vs ARGENTINA, Salta: Reserve lock
vs AUSTRALIA, Perth: Lock
vs NEW ZEALAND, Albany: Reserve flank
vs AUSTRALIA, Bloemfontein: Reserve flank
vs NEW ZEALAND, Cape Town: Flank
vs IRELAND, Dublin: Flank
vs ITALY, Padua: Flank
vs WALES, Cardiff: Flank
vs WALES, Washington DC: Lock
vs ENGLAND, Johannesburg: Reserve flank
vs ENGLAND, Bloemfontein: Flank
vs ENGLAND, Cape Town: Flank
TOTAL TESTS BY POSITION
Lock 22 (9 starts, 13 as reserve)
Flank 13 (8 starts, 5 as reserve)
No 8 1 (0 starts, 1 as reserve)
– This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.