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FEATURE How Pieter-Steph du Toit led the Springboks to another World Cup title

How Pieter-Steph du Toit led the Springboks to another World Cup title
7 months ago

There is no greater prize-fighter in the world of boxing than ‘the Gypsy King’. In the 12th round of his first fight against Deontay Wilder at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Tyson Fury was knocked senseless by a vicious right-left combination from the fists of a man reputed to be the hardest hitter of all time in the heavyweight division. At the count of seven, Fury’s eyes opened and he rose from the dead. He picked himself off the canvas and not only survived until the final bell, he even came back to dominate the rest of the round.

After the fight Fury remarked, “It is not enough to knock me down. You have to knock my spark out. If you don’t, I am getting back up and I am going to hunt you down.” It was no surprise that the Gypsy King came back to win his next two encounters with Wilder. He did not wait for scorecards, he won both fights by stoppage, even forcing Wilder’s corner to flutter a white towel into the ring to protect their man from further punishment in the second match. No Mas.

After that, every enemy knew the quality of the man before they ever faced him in the ring. The 12-11 victory over New Zealand at the Stade de France on Saturday evening has shown that the Springboks have no equal as bareknuckle prize-fighters in the world of professional rugby. They are the Gypsy Kings of the oval-ball game – if you do not knock their spark out, they will get up and they will hunt you down. They bear the mark of a true champion.

South Africa won their back-to-back William Webb Ellis trophies in 2019 and 2023 the hard way, after dropping a game at the pool stage. Four years ago, they lost to the All Blacks in the opening game of Pool B in Yokohama by 23 points to 13. On 23rd September 2023, World number one Ireland knocked the Boks down by 13 points to 8 in another Pool B rehearsal. The reverses only served to steel the Springboks’ resolve for the knockout stages. They got up and went again.

South Africa won all their last three games by a single point. At times, all of France in the quarters, England in the semis and even the 14-man All Blacks in the final had the men in green where they wanted them, pinned against the ropes. But not one of them had the strength to knock the Bokke out. All three opponents were left to rue the truth of the Gypsy King’s words.

France were the first team at the 2023 World Cup to come within an inch of knocking out the Springboks – but it wasn’t to be. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Tyson Fury’s first encounter with Wilder in LA took place on December 1st 2018, only six weeks after a new era South African rugby under Rassie Erasmus was announcing itself at the Cake Tin in Wellington. In the season before Erasmus’ elevation to the head coaching role, South African rugby had hit rock-bottom after a 57-0 thrashing by the old enemy at Albany Stadium in North Harbour. Exactly one year later, they were winning against the same foes at the Westpac, by 36 points to 34.

Erasmus had started his essential work, shaking off the Svengali-like spell cast by Super Rugby – all running and passing – and shifting towards a style of play closer to the traditional strengths of the South African game. One key to his new model was the selection of Pieter-Steph du Toit at No 7 – or blindside flanker, in the South African rugby lexicon.

Under the previous regime of head coach Allister Coetzee, Du Toit had been largely regarded as a second row, and he did not start the match in Albany. But at 6’7” inches tall and tipping the scales at 120 kilos, Erasmus saw what Coetzee had not – a huge athlete with a magnificent engine, a broad skill-set on both sides of the ball, and the ability to sustain high speed and effort over 80 minutes.

At the end of the game in Wellington, Pieter-Steph du Toit was in tears. The emotion spoke directly to lineage, and the beating heart of an ancient rivalry rekindled. Du Toit is the grandson of the strongman of the Springboks front row in the 1960s, Piet ‘Spiere’ du Toit. ‘Muscles’ began life as a back-rower, but put on enough solid mass to start 14 games for the Bokke at tighthead prop between 1958 and 1961.

Erasmus saw what Coetzee had not – a huge athlete with a magnificent engine, a broad skill-set on both sides of the ball, and the ability to sustain high speed and effort over 80 minutes.

When the father-figure of South African rugby, ‘Doc’ Craven spotted Du Toit as a first-year student at Stellenbosch University, he was in no doubt of his potential: “We have two Springboks here, that prop and his hooker.” Those two were Piet du Toit and Abie Malan, and together they went all the way from the under-19s into the full national side.

For Pieter-Steph, the Kloovenburg Wine Estate which his grandfather purchased back in 1958 is still very much in the family, and his rugby legacy is thriving. Something palpable has been handed down from one generation to the next, but most of it is invisible, like a blood transfusion. There is a blood-tie to the land, and to the jersey equally.

If he is looking down on his grandson, Spiere would be as proud of his efforts now as he might have been five years ago. In that game versus the All Blacks in Wellington, Du Toit completed a colossal 36 tackles and forced three fumbles. He made more tackles in the second period than he did the first, and he made more tackles in the final quarter (14) then he did in any of the previous three.

At the Stade de France he finished top of charts with 28 tackles, in a match where the Springboks were forced to make over twice the number of tackles (209) completed by their opponents. He was also South Africa’s most reliable lineout target in an area where the Bokke struggled after the early departure of their one bone fide hooker, Bongi Mbonambi, in only the 3rd minute of the game. It was some performance.

Four years ago in Yokohama, Du Toit harried England No 10 George Ford to distraction, leading the defensive line up with relentless speed and purpose. On Saturday evening, he was once again the focal point of the Springbok defensive effort, and he announced his presence right from the beginning of proceedings:


This is the first occasion where the All Blacks attempted to play through the no-man’s-land in between the 40m lines with ball in hand, a key objective as outlined in my preview article. But with Du Toit leading the line up, first Brodie Retallick, then Ethan de Groot are shut down on two consecutive plays for a cumulative 10-metre loss, and the All Blacks are forced to kick the ball away instead.

Du Toit only started on the bench during the Springboks’ loss at Mount Smart Stadium in the 2023 Rugby Championship. With him on the field for the last 35 minutes of the game, South Africa were winning by 17 points to 15 – he is that important to their defensive energy and application.

As the match reached its climax, Du Toit was still leading the line with characteristic urgency:


This probably was noted down as a missed tackle in the official stats, but on Erasmus’ analysis module it is far more likely to present as a turnover assist. Du Toit is doing the job required of him by the Springboks defence structure, attacking the outside shoulder of the ball-carrier (Rieko Ioane) and forcing him back inside, into the clutches of a waiting pilferer – in this case, No 21 Kwagga Smith.

South Africa also has a tactical habit of aligning Du Toit opposite key opposition ball-carriers, in a form of man-marking equivalent to Italy’s catennacio in soccer. At the Stade de France, the blonde flanker’s gunsights were trained on New Zealand No 12 Jordie Barrett, and he did not miss. Nine of his 28 tackles targeted the second five-eighth:



In both instances, Du Toit’s timing of the tackle and his closing speed once the decision is made are exceptional for such a big man. The first results in a fumble, and the second in slow six-second ball which buys the defence precious time in which to regroup for the next phase.

This is a huge key for defences designed like South Africa’s. The Boks need the time to realign and rub their feet into the resin box for the next rush upfield. Pieter-Steph du Toit bought them that time with his shuddering stops on Barrett right at the gain-line:



Firstly, Du Toit brings all forward progress to a halt on first phase from lineout, and not even the time-honoured Joe Schmidt ploy of bringing a big, tricky wingman (Mark Telea) inside on second phase can create forward momentum out of nothing; secondly, it is the Springbok No 7 hammering Jordie as he pulls the ball back, forcing a disconnect in the passing game further out. A lot of pain, for very little gain.

Another incident with only 10 minutes of the game remaining brought back the harsh reality of how far New Zealand had strayed off course from their original aim of crossing the 40s with ball in hand:


First Barrett is hurled back on first phase from lineout, then Pieter-Steph is back on his feet in time to assist in a second tackle on another big Kiwi ball-carrier, bench hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho. On the very next phase, replacement scrum-half Finlay Christie was forced to kick the ball tamely away into the Springbok backfield. It was a symbolic moment.

Forget the cards and the questionable refereeing decisions in a high-pressure game. South Africa has once again proven itself the biggest and baddest beast on the planet, at least in the unforgiving jungle of knockout tournament rugby. They have now won four out of the eight World Cups in which they have competed, and it is hard to argue with that record.

First France, then England and even the 14-man All Blacks had the chance to put them away, but all of them failed to do it when it really counted. You cannot keep a good man down for long – if you do not apply knockout power when it is most needed, he will come back to hunt you down, like the Gypsy King.

Pieter-Steph du Toit has been one of Springboks who have been most influential in South Africa’s international renaissance under first Rassie Erasmus, and more latterly Jacques Nienaber since 2018. His family farm and winery at Kloovenburg is less than an hour’s drive from the famous bronze statue of Danie Craven and his dog ‘Bliksem’ which still stands at Coetzenburg in Stellenbosch. The Doc’s jabbing forefinger once picked out the talent of Piet ‘Spiere’ u dToit from the junior ranks 65 years ago. Today it would be pointing at his grandson, two generations removed. There could be no higher accolade for the star du match in the World Cup final of 2023.


Rugby 189 days ago

Well done excellent article, nice narrative with Wilder v Fury. Defensively Fury was untouchable. Totally enjoyable read. I have bookmarked to read again. PSTD superb player. Wilder made the mistake of going for Fury’s head, very difficult. Got a be body body body body then head. Wilder is on the come back against parker, I look forward to it.

David 226 days ago

For me ‘styles make fights’ means that the variety of styles makes for more interesting bouts. Same thing with rugby. There are out and out attack minded teams and counter punchers. In MMA there are strikers and grapplers. I have a preference for certain styles but appreciate the beauty of each. Watching rope a dope didn’t make for a beautiful spectacle but grinding out the win made for an instant classic.
I don’t much take to 7s rugby and in fact cant think of any tournament of 7s that I have watched. Nothing wrong with it, just doesn’t interest me. Same with the lighter weight boxers where there is “more fighting” and often more technical scoring, I still prefer to watch the heavyweights bang.
I see no point in griping about the contrasting styles or denigrating other teams for having a different style and different strengths and weakness.

cs 227 days ago

Top shelf Nick. Trust you enjoyed the cup. Cheers.

Nool 229 days ago

BOKs just proved the point. Brutal dominance with a touch of flair here and there is all that's needed to win a world cup. Exceptional coaching if you ask me and sheer belief in the game plan. The mental prowess that perhaps only France have in the NH. No other team is capable of that in the NH. So yes our mental strength was key. No teams are allowed to play or enforce their game plan and that's intelligent rugby. We hear all week long we focus on our strenghts and game plan…perhaps change that and flip the script instead

Harry 229 days ago

Nick, your essay here stands above the rest, but I did like David Walsh’s attempt in The Times, writing: “There have been ten men’s Rugby World Cup finals and having witnessed all of them, this was the most pulsating, the most gripping, the most, and I use this word advisedly, heroic. At the end, with South Africa trying to win their third consecutive game by one point, I thought of an Oscar Wilde line, “The suspense is terrible, I hope it lasts.” The pity was that the game had to end. The greater pity was that one of the teams had to lose. In these moments we need the cynic’s perspective: if everyone got what they deserved in sport it wouldn’t entrance us.” Like you, he pointed to the Bok blindside: “Du Toit delivered the greatest, most influential performance ever seen in a World Cup final. The statistic that says he made 28 tackles conceals more than it reveals. Thierry Dusautoir made a staggering 38 tackles at the Principality Stadium in 2007 when France beat New Zealand in a World Cup quarter-final. As wonderful as Dusautoir was that evening, his performance wasn’t quite at Du Toit’s level in this final. Because it seemed every tackle the South Africa flanker made was important and impactful. “I just wanted to stop and watch him,” Kolisi said afterwards. “He was flying past me, making these tackles.” I am only adding this piece because it fits your own (superior) essay so well. Harry

carlos 229 days ago

Why should I forget the questionable calls and insistent TMO meddling? How much did he enter? Every two minutes in the first half? And on Frizzell, “apologizing” as he fell into the player? TMO as MOTM?

I’m sorry, but I became utterly frustrated by this game. I could not concentrate and got really annoyed. This is not a kind of final I wanted and waited to watch. yes, PSDT played extraordinarily, yes, the ABs forgot about drop kicks, and their tee kicks were not great. And yes, they did not figure out how to play “around” the Boks defense.

I did not like Italian’s cattenaccio, and I don’t like this rugby. The Boks have talent for more than this. If you think it is about winning about all costs, good for them, but this fan is walking away. Taking time-off rugby.

In Argentina, they call this Bilardo football. I prefer a different one. I walked away from Bilardo too.

Nigel 229 days ago

‘Forget the cards and the questionable refereeing decisions …’.? That’s the crux of all 3 of SA's knock-out games. Horrifically biased officiating, twice from O'Keeffe (the fact that SA get the same blatantly biased referee in 2 of their 3 KO stage games in both the last two world cups defies belief but leaves no doubt how pampered to SA are by WR) and once from Barnes is the only reason SA won. Hardly rocket science unless of course you are a green and goggled saffa rugby dunce.

Ace 229 days ago

Nick, PSDT played his last four tests under Allister as flank …

Carlin 229 days ago

The force that South Africa tackled with on the weekend was outstanding. The impact of some of those tackles rattled the All Blacks and I think early on made them think twice with their attack and that lead to a couple of handling errors. Pieter Steph Du-Toit was superb and deserving of the man of the match.

Thanks for the article mate. Superb read.

Rob 229 days ago

Thanks for all the insights, I will definitely return.

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