Prodigal son returns

Pieter-Steph du Toit has finally fulfilled his dream of playing for the Stormers, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Heyneke Meyer believes Pieter-Steph du Toit will go on to become one of the greatest Springboks of all time. Those who worked closely with the 2m, 116kg lock at the Boks in 2013 and 2015 described him as a freak of nature who ticked all the boxes relating to athleticism and skill.

More recently, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck reached for the superlatives when quizzed about the Cape franchise’s biggest signing for the 2016 season.

‘Pieter-Steph is an absolute beast,’ said Fleck. ‘He’s already added value and I’m looking forward to his performances in Super Rugby.’

Fleck is not the only one who will be watching the competition with keen interest. The 2016 season is a massive one for Du Toit, who for all the hype is yet to show the world the full extent of his rugby powers.

While Du Toit showed immense promise during his four-year stint with the Sharks, he only contributed to one title success, the 2013 Currie Cup. A series of injuries during that period limited his Super Rugby appearances to 27 and his Currie Cup outings to five. And according to Meyer, Du Toit would have played more than eight Tests for the Boks if not for those untimely ailments.

And yet those experiences may prove to be the making of the player. Du Toit has returned to the Western Cape this season to play for a team he admired and loved as a kid. He has a greater understanding of what it takes to overcome setbacks and disappointments that are usually reserved for players far older than 23.

Du Toit laughs when I remind him of Meyer’s remark that he is a great-in-waiting.

‘I will never take comments like that to heart,’ he says. ‘Maybe it’s because of where I come from, and what I’ve experienced over the past few years. I didn’t go to a big rugby school in the Swartland, so I had to work incredibly hard to get my chance at the Sharks.

‘I also learned through my injuries that it can all be taken away. You have to survive in those periods. You learn you aren’t anybody special. You’re brought down to zero. That’s just how it works.’

Du Toit underwent five operations during his time with the Sharks. In March 2014, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament and was ruled out for the rest of the season. Almost a year later  to the day, he injured the same knee and was told his World Cup dream was over.

This time, however, Du Toit managed to defy the odds and return for the Boks’ campaign in England. His family played no small part in his recovery.

‘It was a miracle,’ Du Toit says. ‘I worked really hard to get back, but I will never forget the moment the doctor told me my knee would be fine. I just burst into tears.

‘Then he told me I would need to arrange for a ligament replacement, and it would take three to four weeks to fly in from Germany. My father was with me at the time, and he told the doctor he would give me his ligaments. After a few tests, the doctor gave the all-clear and took it from his hamstring. I remember the two of us exiting the hospital, side by side in wheelchairs. It was a special moment.’

Du Toit’s father, Pieter, was determined to get back to work on the family’s wine and olive farm in Riebeek-Kasteel. Meanwhile, Du Toit rested up. After regaining his fitness, he went to the World Cup with his father’s ligaments in tow.

‘My dad loved it,’ Du Toit says with a grin. ‘First he joked that he deserved a cut of my pay. Then he claimed to be a Springbok because a piece of him had made it to the World Cup.’

Du Toit’s grandfather was in fact a Springbok. Piet ‘Spiere’ du Toit played 14 Tests between 1958 and 1961, a run which included a series win against the All Blacks. The tighthead prop also represented Western Province.

‘Unfortunately, he is no longer with us,’ says Du Toit, referring to his grandfather’s passing 20 years ago. ‘It would have been great if he was still around to watch me make my Stormers debut.’

Du Toit expands on the significance of his move back to the Cape. The prodigal son may have returned, but there is a feeling his rugby story is only just beginning.

‘It’s nice to be home, to be closer to my parents and brothers. I grew up here. I dreamed of playing for the Stormers at Newlands. I have the opportunity to do so now, and for that I’m grateful.

‘That said, I know it’s a case of starting all over again,’ he adds. ‘I’ve been through it before. I came from nothing and had to work my way up at the Sharks. The way I see it, I am starting at rock bottom again at the Stormers. I will need to work my way back to the top.

‘Looking ahead, it’s going to be a tough challenge, especially in terms of earning a position in the Springbok set-up. My main aim is to establish myself at the Stormers. My dream is to play my best rugby this season. Hopefully I can achieve that.’

– This article first appeared in the March 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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