CAPE TOWN – It sure is impressive when an athlete comes back from a serious injury and picks up right where he left off.
But it takes a special athlete to return from one injury after the next and just lift his game a bit more every single time.
That’s Pieter-Steph du Toit.
His history with injuries, though, is by no means what makes Du Toit the special player he is, although it certainly contributes.
In his time with the Sharks, before joining the Stormers, the lock-supreme-turned-blindside-presence underwent five surgeries in as many years, with his knee operation in 2015 being the most story-like one. Miraculous, as Du Toit labelled it back then.
Ahead of the World Cup, Du Toit suffered a massive blow when he sustained an anterior cruciate ligament injury – the same knee he had done the year before – in a Super Rugby match against the Cheetahs.
The injury was expected to keep him out for the rest of the season news that no rugby player wants to hear a mere five months out from the World Cup.
But then something happened for the then 22-year-old. His father, who had accompanied him to his doctor’s appointment, offered to donate the necessary tendons to hasten the recovery process.
Du Toit would have had to wait three to four weeks for a cadaver tendon from Europe, but his father’s gesture spared him those few weeks – and as any sportsman would tell you, three to four weeks is an invaluable amount of time.
The never-before-seen operation was a successful one, and Du Toit made it back onto the rugby field in time to play in the World Cup.
Then, after the World Cup, came the switch back to his place of birth that switch.
While he was with the Sharks, the Hoërskool Swartland product’s natural ability was obvious, guess it’s always been.
His natural athletic ability – for a forward, I should add – and his way with the ball would testify to that. But when he returned to Cape Town, it was the start of something.
Du Toit went on to form a formidable second-row partnership with Eben Etzebeth at the Stormers, and where Bok locks were concerned, the two of them were always a step ahead of the rest.
Fast forward four years, and Du Toit looks like he’s never really played anything other than No 7.
I have to admit, when the experiment was first done by former Bok coach Heyneke Meyer, I wasn’t a fan.
And the fact that playing flank for the first time in his professional career didn’t exactly work for Du Toit made that unwillingness to accept the move even harder to shrug.
Maybe it was because that performance, not only Du Toit’s but the entire Bok squad as a whole, happened to be against Japan in Brighton which South Africa infamously lost 34-32.
And when Du Toit was again picked in the No 7 jumper one year later, this time by Allister Coetzee, things didn’t go much better.
But Du Toit, at flank, under Rassie Erasmus, has been a different story.
While I doubt anybody would now challenge the SA director of rugby for playing Du Toit there, it’s his work rate and natural ability, I believe, as opposed to just being a ‘born 7’, that has made him such a presence in the back row. An indefatigable presence, if you will.
Of all the words you could use to describe the "beast" that has been Du Toit over the last few seasons, that description is the most fitting one.
The star status of the Springbok and Stormers forward has continued to rise, and rightfully so.
Named the SA Rugby Player of the Year in 2016 and again in 2018, Du Toit’s abilities as a rugby player and him being a vital cog in the Springbok operation has become something you can almost guarantee.
It was the second time in three years that he scooped the award, and last year, his efforts on the field beat fellow Boks Franco Mostert , Aphiwe Dyanyti Handré Pollard and 2017 winner, Malcolm Marx for the top award.
The staggering 202 tackles he made 128 ball carries and 28 line-outs he took in the 14 Tests he played last season set him up for that success, and the fact that he, as well as Steven Kitshoff, were the only players to feature in every Springbok match of 2018 just again showed his worth.
But Du Toit has made it clear, through sheer form and ability alone, that the only player he should try and constantly beat or outwork is himself.
Being flagged as a top performer, not only for the Boks but for the struggling Stormers of 2018 as well, a Man-of-the-Match worthy performance by the 27-year-old has become something to be expected. It’s become something you can almost always bank on.
In the Springboks’ historic triumph in Wellington last year, the two-metre tall warrior’s shedding of tears told a story of hellish commitment that paid off – commitment by the team as a whole, but yet again by the man himself. His reaction after the match told it all. It showed how much that result meant to him.
And don’t we wish to see that same kind of commitment from the Boks throughout the World Cup?
Injury – this time to his shoulder – hit Du Toit again this year, ruling him out of the latter stages of the Stormers’ Super Rugby campaign.
He returned, in typical Pieter-Steph style, and went on to star in the Boks’ Rugby Championship-winning journey.
And if the Boks win the World Cup in Japan, it might not be as “miraculous” a story as the gifted forward’s 2015 script, but there’s no doubt that he’ll play a key role that success.
That’s the one thing you can bank on. Always.