Pieter-Steph du Toit has stood tallest during a season of unprecedented success for the Springboks, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Earlier this week, SA Rugby invited members of the media to nominate their star performers across a range of categories. It took me a surprisingly long time to decide who to back as the Player of the Year, and that period of deliberation got me thinking about how well the Boks have done in 2019 and how far they’ve come since 2016.
Three years ago, Pieter-Steph du Toit appeared less than thrilled with his SA Player of the Year award. The class of 2016 finished the season with the worst win record (33%) in South African rugby history, and it was hard to find more than a couple of players worthy of that individual prize.
In 2017, I interviewed John Smit for an article I was writing about Malcolm Marx. The former Bok captain felt that Marx, at that stage, was the best hooker in the game and the only South African worth picking in a hypothetical World XV. Marx went on to claim the SA Player of the Year award, but again there wasn’t a great deal of competition over the course of a poor season that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Fast forward to the present. The Boks have finished the 2019 season with a 10-from-12 win record, the Rugby Championship title and the World Cup. It didn’t come as a surprise to see the Boks, Rassie Erasmus (Coach of the Year) and Du Toit (Player of the Year) claiming the awards that matter at World Rugby’s prize-giving in Tokyo.
The smart money is on Du Toit adding the SA Rugby Player of the Year award to his 2019 trophy collection. It speaks volumes for Du Toit’s talent and work ethic that he’s on the verge of winning his third such award in the space of four seasons.
So, why the need for deliberation? The answer to this question sums up the progress of the Boks and puts Du Toit’s colossal efforts across this particular season into perspective.
A number of individuals have ascended to another level of competence over the past six months. If not for Du Toit’s superhuman feats, there would be plenty of debate about who should be recognised as South Africa’s standout player.
At the start of the season, Makazole Mapimpi was talked up by Bok coach Rassie Erasmus and backline mentor Mzwandile Stick as the best finisher in South African rugby. The wing lived up to the hype and then some when he scored 10 tries across the Rugby Championship and World Cup. On Saturday, Mapimpi scored two tries for the Barbarians in the narrow defeat by Fiji.
Mapimpi is not the only Bok who’s been nipping at Du Toit’s heels, though. Damian de Allende had his best season to date for South Africa. Cheslin Kolbe produced some inspired performances in the Rugby Championship and was one of the stars of the World Cup tournament in Japan.
The list goes on: Beast Mtawarira. Bongi Mbonambi. Duane Vermeulen. Faf de Klerk. Handre Pollard. Their game-shaping contributions have been evident across the season.
Siya Kolisi, Franco Mostert and Francois Louw haven’t got enough credit for their work in the trenches. Lukhanyo Am’s vision and organisational skills were key to the Boks’ defensive success in Japan.
Du Toit has won the SA Rugby Player of the Year award twice before. This year, however, so many of the Bok players have been at the top of their respective games. The team has enjoyed unprecedented success in that they have won the Rugby Championship as well as the World Cup title.
To emerge at the top of the individual pile in this scenario would be truly special.
Photo: David Ramos/World Rugby via Getty Images