If you had a pound for every mistake Pieter-Steph du Toit has made in the past few years, you probably wouldn’t even have enough spare change in your pocket to buy a beer in a London pub.
From the highs of the demolishing a much-fancied English team in the World Cup final in 2019 and going on to win the World Rugby Player of the Year award, to the lows of his struggles with a leg injury that almost cost him his career – and his leg – in 2020, the South African flanker’s name has become a byword for consistent excellence.
Even among rugby’s infamously partisan supporter base, where age-old rivalries are based on international history as much as they are on sport, those enmities and entrenched biases have been put to one side and the Cape Town native has been almost unanimously hailed as the best player in the world over that period of time.
Anyone who watches rugby closely knows that the sport offers up a myriad of players at the international level. You have the star who can take over a game on one day and fly under the radar in the next. You have the solid players, those players that will give you a six or seven out of 10 in every facet, every game. What you don’t have a lot of are the players that can, every game, consistently give you eights and nines out of 10 across the board. That’s the elite stratosphere of player that Du Toit has forced his way in to.
A remarkably physical force who contributes as much as a ball-carrier as he does as a tackler, not to mention with his solidity at the set-piece, as a leader in his teams and through his work-rate, it is perhaps at the breakdown where he has given himself the point of difference that has won him so much praise.
With the laws of the game rightfully protecting the heads of players, the body control and strength of ‘jackals’ being as it is, it has arguably never been more difficult to clear out at the breakdown with aggression and precision than it is now, yet the 6ft 7in forward is moving about defensive bodies seemingly with ease. Of course, it’s not easy, it’s non-stop work on the training ground that has got the monstrous back row hitting rucks with all the agility and precision of a much smaller player.
In an era when attacking space has become so hard to find… the ability of a player like Du Toit to deliver quick ball makes him worth his weight in gold.
In an era when attacking space has become so hard to find given the conditioning of players and the drilling of defences – see the 50-22 kicking law and the hope it will create space for sides to attack – the ability of a player like Du Toit to deliver quick ball makes him worth his weight in gold. He was as crucial to the Boks’ World Cup success as anyone and more so than many.
Of course, nothing lasts for ever and if you’re at the top, there is always going to be someone coming for your throne. Enter, Maro Itoje.
The English lock is no stranger to the limelight nor accolade, having twice been nominated for the World Rugby Player of the Year award himself, only to be pipped to it on both occasions by Beauden Barrett. But, just as Du Toit before him, Itoje has raised even his already formidable game to new levels.
Gone are the over-zealous penalties and gone are the quiet, solid all-around games. Week after week now, Itoje is turning in game-winning performances and he is doing it against the highest-quality opposition. The 26-year-old has witnessed Du Toit raise the bar and he has risen with it.
Itoje has been ticking the same boxes that Du Toit has ticked and he has matched up with the South African in his areas of strength, but why then would we look to claim he may have now surpassed the Bok?
One word. Turnovers.
As brilliant as Du Toit has been – and he is more than capable of forcing turnovers at the lineout or by holding up a ball-carrier – the one area he arguably doesn’t excel in is his ability to force a turnover at the breakdown. Even with similar physical dimensions, Itoje has managed to master the art of the ‘jackal’, as well as being able to target the ball with his wrapping arm in the tackle, occasionally allowing him to punch the ball out as he completes the tackle. For any fans of the NFL among you, think ‘Peanut’ Tillman but a lot bigger.
Itoje forced four turnovers out of the Boks, accounting for 50 per cent of his team’s entire total of takeaways. It was vital in keeping the Lions in touch in the first half and then sparked their resurgence after the interval.
With that premium in the game on space that we mentioned earlier, in reference to Du Toit’s ability to deliver quick ball, creating turnovers may currently be the most important facet of the attacking game in Test rugby. If you can create transition attack opportunities, when your opposition are scrambling to reset in defence, the advantages that can bring in terms of space to attack, or territory to win from a penalty, can be the difference between victory and defeat in these highly competitive games.
No game has been a better microcosm of this than the first British & Irish Lions Test against the Springboks in Cape Town. Itoje, who was in excellent form in general, forced four turnovers out of the Boks, accounting for 50 per cent of his team’s entire total of takeaways. It was vital in keeping the Lions in touch in the first half and then sparked their resurgence after the interval.
On Saturday, the ball belonged to Itoje, you just had to hope he let you borrow it.
In poor and impressive England team performances alike, Itoje has led the way, proving to be the commanding presence, especially among the forwards, of his side behind the captaincy of Owen Farrell, just as Du Toit has been a similar talismanic-like figure under the leadership of Kolisi. They may not lead out their teams, but both Itoje and Du Toit have become the heartbeats of their respective sides.
And is there a better landscape to see these two giants of the game go head to head than a Lions tour of South Africa?
Du Toit has been hamstrung by both his injury last year and the preparation that the Springboks, with multiple Covid-enforced isolations, have had to endure so expect him to come out firing in the second Test.
Itoje has drawn first blood but there is still plenty of time for Du Toit to show that he is still the standard by which excellence in the sport is measured. Du Toit has been hamstrung by both his injury last year and the preparation that the Springboks, with multiple Covid-enforced isolations, have had to endure so expect him to come out firing in the second Test, both sharper technically and closer to Test-match fitness.
As for Itoje, history could be beckoning for the Englishman. He is 160 minutes away from potentially securing his first Lions series win, after being part of the touring group that ended with a tie in New Zealand in 2017. It is surely only a matter of time before he gets his hands on the World Rugby Player of the Year award too, with a nomination this year seeming nothing more than a formality at this point. And although the likes of Richie Mo’unga and Antoine Dupont should offer a formidable challenge, who would bet against it being third time lucky for Itoje in 2021?
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