Pieter-Steph: Epitome of Boks' humility, potency

Pieter-Steph du Toit
Pieter-Steph du Toit

Cape Town - Just the third South African winner of the prestigious World Rugby Player of the Year mantle … and first Springbok loose forward since Schalk Burger back in 2004.

But there could be few doubters anywhere over the crowning of Pieter-Steph du Toit, the quintessentially modest, soft-spoken giant from farming stock in the westerly regions of the Boland, for this year’s title just a day after the Boks’ stunning RWC 2019 success.

It was a serious SA “clean-up”, of course, with the national team unsurprisingly earning Team of the Year, and their meteoric-rising, master tactician Rassie Erasmus the Coach of the Year laurel for good measure - again, pretty much no-brainers.

The Player of the Year title was instituted by the former International Rugby Board in 2001, and first won by feisty Irish hooker Keith Wood.

As you might expect, it has been significantly monopolised since by New Zealanders, with as many as 10 recipients subsequently - including two three-time winners in Richie McCaw (2006, 2009 and 2010) and Dan Carter (2005, 2012, 2015) and back-to-back wins by Beauden Barrett in 2016 and 2017.

Only Burger and Bryan Habana (2007) had been prior South Africans stepping up for it, albeit that there have been some near misses by other Bok nominees down the years and someone like Victor Matfield, especially, is a little unlucky not have ever held the title in a lengthy, stellar career.

Yet Pieter Stephanus du Toit, the now 27-year-old product of Swartland High in Malmesbury, is an entirely fitting 2019 winner … not least because it illustrates the inspiring success, in a relatively short period, of his difficult full-time transition from once dedicated No 5 lock to blindside flanker.

For the seeds of his transfer of roles, you have to give at least a portion of credit to two earlier Bok coaches, Heyneke Meyer and Allister Coetzee, both of whom - to varying extents - recognised his potential (and no doubt keeping in mind the eternally vast factory of South African second-rowers) for deployment as a classical No 7.

It was initially a tough, hardly flawless swap for Du Toit, who has commendably, gradually also shed a few of his previous 120 kilograms to cater specifically for the different needs (including key positioning awareness on defence) of the side-of-scrum berth: remember the awkward, costly run-around he got defensively from a devilish, dummying England scrumhalf Ben Youngs in a Test at Twickenham in late 2016?

In the higher-tier RWC 2019 showpiece, Youngs was again England’s starting No 9 ... but the brutal pressure an altogether more street-wise Du Toit placed on both him and jittery halfback partner George Ford somehow symbolised the ever-mounting triumph of his conversion.

The Boks have prided themselves for decades in big, brawny, yet skilled and mobile blindside flanks who are effectively “extra locks” on the park for the levels of general grunt they offer but also as strong back-of-lineout jumpers, forceful cleaners and durable tacklers.

Theuns Stofberg, Gert Smal, Danie Rossouw, Juan Smith ... they are just some notable examples of what has gone before in the No 7 jersey since the 1980s.

The rangy Smith, of course, was a key pillar of the Boks’ last World Cup triumph in France in 2007: Du Toit was to prove every bit as dynamic and industrious - and perhaps even then some - over the course of several weeks in Japan and also in the lead-up Tests of the current, glittering calendar year.

He is as comfortable and high-worth now as he could possibly be at No 7, presumably still with several seasons of yeoman service to come (touch wood, for a player who also had two serious cruciate knee ligament injuries to wrestle with earlier in his first-class career, the blond bomber has also been blessed by uninterrupted clean health on that front for a long time since).

In many ways, Du Toit - always willing and engaging enough, yet so clearly not hugely comfortable in the glare of media flashbulbs - provided an array of obvious strengths at blindside flank that other frontline countries in Japan tellingly could not.

At least partly motivated by not having quite the level of orthodox class and range of attributes they might wish to sport in the blind-sider berth, teams like New Zealand, England and Australia have tended to lean recently toward a “two-fetcher”, lower-centre-of-gravity policy for their flankers.

That is fine on a day where manufacturing turnovers at vital times is a common hallmark, but Du Toit proved quite categorically on Saturday that - especially when you are looking after your own ball zealously, as the Boks overwhelmingly did - there is no substitute for a charging, marauding, tall-timber behemoth routinely knocking people back and ensuring front-foot momentum on a regular basis.

Just one reason the formerly imperious All Blacks have taken a costly step backwards in the last year or two, I am adamant, has been the failure to properly identify a viable, robust blindside flank to succeed Jerome Kaino, who quit internationals after 81 caps in 2017.

South Africa? Well, simply no such angst these days. 

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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