Thomas du Toit has embraced the challenge of transitioning from loosehead prop to tighthead, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
In January, Sharks coach Robert du Preez fronted up at a media conference to announce the Super Rugby squad for the 2018 season. As conversation shifted to the Sharks’ front-row options, Du Preez delivered an emphatic statement when he made it clear Thomas du Toit would be considered solely as a tighthead prop.
It was a decision that would have caused some former front-row veterans to experience cold flushes as they considered the difficulties of adapting to this notoriously challenging position. As it turned out, several pundits wasted little time in suggesting it was an unnecessary risk for the talented young prop to make the challenging move away from loosehead (where he had been performing well). Critics were also quickly lining up to say ‘I told you so’ when Du Toit endured a torrid baptism of fire in the Sharks’ Super Rugby opener against the Lions.
Yet Du Toit simply dusted himself off and used the experience as an important learning curve. Behind the scenes, he went to work with Sharks forwards coach Jaco Pienaar while taking on board advice from other trusted confidantes such as former Bok front rowers John Smit and Lourens Adriaanse.
In addition, with the continued backing of Du Preez and the Bok coaching staff, who supported the move, Du Toit made steady improvements week by week as he became increasingly au fait with the dark arts of tighthead play.
‘The thing that really motivated me and appealed to me about making the move was that I knew it was a real challenge,’ Du Toit tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘It’s two different worlds from loosehead to tighthead, and everyone has to go through that difficult stage where you are treading water after being thrown in the deep end. You need to experience that to grow as a person and player. It did require a lot of work, but at this point I’m content to see that all the hard work seems to be paying off.’
Although Du Toit’s ‘permanent’ transition to tighthead drew plenty of attention at the start of the year, the fact of the matter is it’s a career move that had been in the pipeline for some time. In his second year with the Junior Boks in 2015, Du Toit featured prominently at No 3, while the Sharks remained open to the idea of that eventually becoming his long-term position.
‘From that stage [with the Junior Boks], there was always this idea of moving over to tighthead,’ Du Toit explains. ‘However, we only chose to execute the plan when the right opportunity came around, which happened when Jannie [du Plessis] and Lourens had left, while Coenie [Oosthuizen] was also out with injury this year.’
It opened the door for Du Toit to make his move, and with a little help from some friends, he embraced the opportunity.
‘Coach Rob said the decision rested with me and gave me his backing. Then I’ve worked closely with Jaco, who gave me lots of one-on-one time to work on my problem areas, and I’m so grateful to have had his help through the tough times.
‘Lourens is also someone who was always willing to give advice and I spoke to John quite a bit at the beginning. He explained to me that there would be times when I’d come off second best, but he also told me I would learn through that.’
Du Toit says it also helped to have the support of his family and he pays special credit to fiancée Elaine Heystek.
‘She’s been through this whole process with me and felt the pain when I had to scrum against Jacques van Rooyen at the beginning of the season. When the scrum was going backwards what seemed like 20m, she felt that too, but she’s always been there for me.’
Du Toit also knew he had to take it on the chin as Van Rooyen provided a rude awakening to the rigours of facing a wily, experienced loosehead prop at scrum time.
‘You have to grow from that sort of experience,’ Du Toit reflects. ‘If it was easy from the beginning, everyone would do it. I’m actually grateful it wasn’t that easy, and that I had to get beaten up and pushed back and learn all these different things, because not everyone gets that opportunity.’
Such a comment speaks to the personality of a person and player who finds motivation in taking on new challenges. And, as the Super Rugby season progressed, so the tone of conversation began to change around the subject. Slowly, but surely, Du Toit started to banish any scrum troubles as he increasingly looked more comfortable in the No 3 jersey.
Towards the end of April Du Toit claimed the Man of the Match award as the Sharks downed the Stormers 24-17 in Durban, winning lavish praise from his coach.
‘I’ve always said that Thomas has incredible talent,’ said Du Preez. ‘He just had to persevere. It would have been easy to turn around after one or two games that didn’t go his way and make changes by moving him back to loosehead. But he’s shown that he can become one of the best tightheads in the world.’
A few weeks later, Du Toit received further recognition with a call-up to the Boks.
It was something the powerful prop first experienced at the end of last year, when he was summoned to Wales to provide front-row cover, but remained out of the match 23.
This past June, it was a different story. Du Toit featured off the bench in all four Tests, and looked quite at home as an international tighthead.
‘Playing for the Boks was everything I dreamed it would be,’ he says. ‘I knew how hard I needed to work to get into the Bok set-up, so it was perfect timing and I was able to appreciate every moment.
‘With the changes to the coaching staff, the word I would use to describe the set-up is ‘‘professionalism’’. The coaches are at the peak of professionalism in everything they do, from training to preparation to ensuring everyone knows their role and the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s all about serving the team to make the whole group better.’
Du Toit has been a big benefactor in such a system, with a focus on the demands of the tighthead position seeing him hone his conditioning to find his ideal fit and fighting weight (around 127kg). It’s added to his mobility around the field, with the youngster having established himself as a powerful defender and formidable ball-carrier.
‘As a prop, your basics need to be absolutely perfect; you can’t go backwards at scrum time or give away silly penalties,’ he explains. ‘Every player needs a bit of X factor, though, which is something I’m trying to work on. You can never think you’re good enough, and it’s about working hard at my individual skill-set and serving the team in as many ways as possible.’
In the space of a few months, Du Toit has come a long way, but in many respects, this is just the beginning. He’s had a taste of Test rugby as a tighthead prop and is hungry for more.
‘I’ll do everything in my power to remain part of the Bok team. Rassie has brought a whole new approach to things where you can never feel completely safe in your position. In this scenario, I’m the hunter trying to challenge for that starting position and I want to keep that hunger, which is one of my goals for the rest of the season. I want to be involved in every game and I know what’s required of me: more hard work.’
– This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.