World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit says that players will emerge from the Covid-19 crisis with a new appreciation for the game. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Springbok flank and his young family have been spending the lockdown period on the Du Toit family farm in Riebeek-Kasteel. In a wide-ranging interview for the next issue of SA Rugby magazine – on sale from 18 May – he reflected on the Boks’ successes in 2019 as well as the extraordinary challenges he and his teammates have faced in recent months.
Last November, South African rugby was riding a wave of euphoria. The Boks finished the season as Rugby Championship and World Cup champions, and at the top of the World Rugby rankings. Du Toit was named World Rugby Player of the Year.
Less than four months later, however, Du Toit sustained a freakish injury while on duty for the Stormers and may have lost his leg if not for the timely intervention of the franchise’s medical team.
A couple of weeks down the line, the Vodacom Super Rugby tournament was suspended due to rising fears around the Covid-19 pandemic.
Du Toit told SARugbymag.co.za that he faces a long road to recovery. Having suffered several injury setbacks over the course of his career, he has learned to cherish every opportunity he gets to play for his franchise and country. The latest ordeal as well as the global pandemic, of course, have only strengthened this view.
It’s not yet known when the restrictions will be lifted and when rugby will resume. While players around the world aren’t in the same physical state as Du Toit – who at the time of the interview was still unable to run – they may be in a similar mental space. Indeed, everyone in the industry is desperate for competitive rugby to resume sooner rather than later.
‘A lot of people will come out on the other side with a new mindset,’ Du Toit said. ‘Nobody will take anything for granted ever again.
‘If the coach tells us to do something at training, we’re going to go above and beyond. We’re going to train harder than ever before and play every game as if it’s our last. Why? Because this whole experience has shown how it can all be taken away.
‘None of us are going to play rugby forever,’ he added. ‘We realise that when we suffer serious injuries. The lockdown period has also forced us to think about what comes next.
‘For me, I believe that I’m more than a rugby player. I have to start thinking about what happens further down the line. When you find yourself in the middle of a crisis like this, you do think about what you would do tomorrow if the the rest of the season was cancelled or if you couldn’t play again.’
Players won’t be able to hit the ground running when the restrictions are eventually lifted, though. It’s believed that they will have three to six weeks – effectively a short pre-season – to recondition their bodies following the unexpected break.
‘Everyone will start at zero when play resumes,’ Du Toit said. ‘I don’t know when that will be, whether it’s in June or August or whenever … but we will be starting from scratch. This is almost like the off-season now. There will be a period of readjustment when the lockdown is lifted, and then we will start afresh.’
While he describes his recent injury as ‘the worst I’ve ever experienced’ and faces a tough challenge to regain full fitness, he is enjoying the time the layoff – and the lockdown – has afforded him with his family.
‘We’re lucky to be on the farm where we have space to work and train and enjoy the fresh air. There are actually quite a few of us here together. All my brothers and my parents are with us.
‘You don’t wish for these things to happen, but what this time in isolation has forced us to realise is that we need to spend more time together as a family. We need to maintain those relationships. I’ve always said that rugby is not everything to me, but I rarely get a chance to spend such a lengthy spell together with my brothers and parents.’
Photo: Kim Ludbrook/AFP