In an SA Rugby magazine exclusive, Springbok coach RASSIE ERASMUS explains how Pieter-Steph du Toit proved him wrong during a dominant 2018 Test season.
I got it totally wrong with Pieter-Steph du Toit.
I had never worked with him or coached him before 2018, so all I had to rely on was my gut instinct when assessing his play. I thought he was physical in the Springboks’ 25-24 defeat against the All Blacks at Newlands in 2017. But I also thought he was poor defensively, missed a lot of tackles and ran too upright as a ball-carrier. I watched that Test and at the time thought I wouldn’t pick him to start for the Springboks.
I had read that other coaches had raved about his strengths as a player and as an athlete. But that Test in Cape Town did nothing to change my mind of him as a player. He was big, physical and passionate, but I didn’t for a moment think I was watching an exceptional rugby player.
I didn’t know Pieter-Steph as a person either, so at the start of the season he certainly wasn’t in my ideal starting XV. Nothing changed during the alignment camps I had with all the Super Rugby squads. I found him to be very chilled in those early theory sessions when it came to discussing the season, the expectation the coaches and management had and what we wanted to achieve as a squad.
The Springboks had to win again and play with conviction to win back the respect of the rugby world. They had to produce performances to convince the South African public that there was passion for the Bok jersey and meaning in representing all South Africans.
It is a privilege to play for one’s country and the coaching staff and management were clear in expressing this to the players in those early sessions. No one had a right to the jersey and the management were only going to invest in players who understood the privilege and were prepared to work for that privilege.
My initial thoughts when meeting Pieter-Steph was that rugby was more a hobby than his passion or job. How wrong I was! He was chilled in those sessions and I wrongly took that as him not necessarily caring. I couldn’t have been more off the mark when it came to reading a player and a situation.
We picked him in the squad because he had done some good things in Super Rugby, but as a coaching staff we felt there were many things not right with his game. We wondered if the defensive issues were because of a lack of understanding or because of playing under several defensive coaches, who all had a different approach.
There was also the issue of his best position. Was it No 5 lock, No 4 lock or blindside flank? Was he good enough to start in each of those positions? I didn’t think he was, based on what I had seen in Super Rugby. I felt there were better and stronger options in those three positions.
We felt his versatility was a strength and that he could have value in the match-day squad or provide good cover to players we believed were ahead of him in the pecking order.
As coaches, we were upfront with the players when we chatted to them individually. Each player was told where we felt them to be strong and, equally, weak and vulnerable. We identified things we thought needed improving and the players knew our thinking at all times. There is massive expectation on the Springboks and if we were going to turn a 57-0 defeat against the All Blacks in New Zealand into a victory in New Zealand, it would require absolute honesty in our assessments and from the players in their own assessments.
We were specific about Pieter-Steph’s technique when carrying the ball and his technique defensively, because for a player of his size he was missing too many tackles and slipping off too many tackles.
Again, I wondered if it was because rugby came too easy to him and I questioned his [motivation]. Was I ever so wrong!
From the moment we got together as a national squad for the June series, the player who got off the bus for the first on-field session was in complete contrast to the one who appeared so relaxed in the initial theory sessions.
Pieter-Steph made an immediate impact on my thinking in the first on-field sessions. He was vocal, he was committed and he was freakishly fit. It was clear by the second on-field session that rugby was his passion and his job. This was a young man who cared about the jersey, understood the meaning of it and never took it for granted. I was so impressed with how he turned my thinking around in two training sessions.
As coaches, we were also impressed with his knowledge of the game and his contribution when talking one on one and within the group. He was clearly a leader and a person who wanted responsibility. He asked questions and had an opinion and a view, and he wanted to be challenged.
We knew very quickly that he was just the player we spoke about when identifying what kind of person and player could restore pride to the Bok jersey and win back respect from the opposition.
Pieter-Steph’s capability as an athlete is exceptional. I made him captain for the season’s opening Test against Wales because he showed strong leadership qualities in those first few sessions. He was also a player who physically was in such good condition that he could play a Test in the US and a week later back it up against England in Joburg. He wanted the responsibility of leading a young team against Wales and was insistent that he would play wherever the coaches felt it would most benefit the team.
We explained there would be matches he would play lock and on other occasions he would play blindside flank. We also said he needed to work on certain aspects of his game if he was going to be a starting option. His value off the bench was always going to be huge, but he took to the challenge immediately to prove he was good enough to start.
His work ethic and professionalism were an example to every other player. He just got on with it and his numbers backed up his intent. His tackling statistics improved every time he played, and his 24 tackles against the All Blacks in the Wellington Test made for one of his best defensive matches. The effectiveness of his defence also went up another level.
He made tackles that put the opposition on their backsides. He disrupted attacks through the aggression of his defence. The biggest difference was that he understood the defensive system and implementation of when to make the right defensive decision.
There was a particular tackle, on All Blacks captain Kieran Read, that was memorable. It isn’t often you see Read lose the ball in a tackle because of the ferocity of the collision.
If we were going to challenge the All Blacks and England, as two examples, we had to have players who could dominate the collisions. Pieter-Steph, against England in June and in the Rugby Championship, became one of our ‘go to’ guys when searching for the gainline advantage. He got us momentum on attack and he stopped opposition momentum.
He was productive and precise in the Rugby Championship as a blindside flank and the overwhelming view among the coaches is that blindside flank is his best position.
But his play has improved so much in so many areas that he is now good enough to start as a lock or a blindside flank. He also showed us on the end-of-year tour that his effectiveness doesn’t change if he plays lock or flank.
He made as many tackles, hit as many rucks, and the only thing that was slightly different was his open-field ball-carrying opportunities when playing lock compared to blindside flank.
It was so unfortunate that he didn’t get the try reward against Wales in Cardiff. It was a wonderful effort from him but he put a foot in touch. Outside that, he hardly put a foot wrong in the 14 Tests this season. His workload was big, but he just kept on putting in a bigger effort.
The coaches felt they needed to manage his workload, but he wanted to play every minute of the season. He didn’t want to rest and he was first on the bus to training and last back on the bus after training. We actually forced him to take the Monday off before the Wales Test, and the next day it was as if he was intent to make up for that day’s rest.
His attitude has been inspiring. He has been brilliant for the squad and his skill set has improved dramatically. His execution on attack and in defence has been one of the features of his game and he has added consistency to his commitment.
Swys de Bruin (attack), Mzwandile Stick (skills) and Jacques Nienaber (defence) have had incredible reward for their efforts in improving Pieter-Steph. It is also so pleasing for every coach when a player responds so positively to wanting to be a better player.
We as coaches are constantly trying to add greater quality to every player’s all-round game. There was a big focus in 2018 on skills in terms of defence and attack.
Pieter-Steph’s response to the coaches has been exceptional. He is just the type of player who can again make the Springboks respected and revered. I have never been as wrong about a player as I was with Pieter-Steph, and I have never been as pleased to be so wrong.
He has set a standard in 2018 that puts him up there with the best in the game. The challenge for him in 2019 and beyond is to maintain those standards while evolving every part of his game. He will get better with more experience and he is still young enough to captain the Springboks again in the future.
– This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The February issue is on sale next week.