Springboks

Pieter-Steph: Strong shades of Danie Rossouw

2017-10-10 12:37
Pieter-Steph du Toit (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Pieter-Steph du Toit has just gone a vital bit further toward ensuring that he amasses a really chunky tally of caps in his Springbok career.

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Think about it: competition is healthier at No 5 lock than in most other positions in the national team, with the Stormers man jockeying with the likes of Lood de Jager and Franco Mostert for the right to be Eben Etzebeth’s starting partner in the second row.

It’s a tight duel, with little to separate the trio in quality terms even if their skill sets are all slightly different, so that unfavourable 33.3 percent chance of selection at five, if you like, may stalk them for some time to come.  

Both De Jager, who began the thriller against the All Blacks at Newlands, and Mostert, introduced off the bench in the 54th minute, put in energetic, wholehearted shifts.

So that only underlines how timely it was that 25-year-old Du Toit virtually put beyond doubt on the day his ability to adapt to the No 7 flanker’s jersey.

The Malmesbury-educated player had started twice previously in the role, and hardly needs reminding what transpired each time: in the first instance, he was part of that perhaps all-time-low, shock defeat to Japan in Brighton at the outset of the 2015 World Cup, and in the next he got a run-around (pretty much literally!) from England scrumhalf Ben Youngs twice to set up tries for the hosts as they eased to a 37-21 Twickenham victory a year later.

Once again on Saturday, Du Toit tasted defeat in the berth ... but, in a crackerjack match where many of the moral mantles went the Bok way, the difference this time was the magnificent weight of his personal performance.

For that, head coach Allister Coetzee and those around him warrant a pat on the back for having the courage to give the big unit a further stab at the role despite his prior difficulties there.

Suddenly, Du Toit looks an extremely viable candidate again, in the right circumstances, for the blindside chore and it should also mean, even if he isn’t in the starting XV, that he is a particularly appealing substitute because - better than De Jager or Mostert - he covers two positional bases smartly.

I may be open to accusations of hypocrisy, given that before the champagne game at Newlands I specifically criticised the make-up of the Bok loose trio.

But it had considerably more to do with the fact that Coetzee effectively opted to field not just one but two players in less familiar terrain than they are used to - Du Toit and Francois Louw, who was a bit unexpectedly asked to don the eighth-man shirt.

In the case of the latter, he was gallant enough at the task, but didn’t look a natural in a position that requires a certain “feel” and swift-thinking tactical attributes, and it will be a surprise if Louw at eight is reprised - especially with regular captain Warren Whiteley’s return from injury reportedly imminent.

But the Du Toit move paid illuminating dividends, as he was a near-constant thorn in the All Black flesh both in defensive and more front-foot ways.

In Afrikaans, his would have best been described as a klipharde showing, and that was evidenced when one or two opponents resorted to minor niggling tactics in the shadowy areas - not with any special success - to try to unsettle the rampaging Springbok.

It was the sort of performance that reminded of the honest heyday of that no-fuss figure Danie Rossouw, the tough Bulls utility forward who served his country staunchly either at lock (whenever the famous Bakkies Botha-Victor Matfield firm couldn’t be deployed together for whatever reason) or commonly enough at seven.

Rossouw wasn’t the worst occasional Test No 8, either, but specifically as a classy blindsider it is tempting to regard Du Toit as a slightly more athletically-gifted figure - for mobility - than his predecessor, now 39 and quite long retired.

It is in the Springbok DNA to wish to field uncompromising, powerful packs as a starting point to success, and that will almost always be the case if lock-sized Du Toit (120kg, a shade under two metres; almost identical tale of the tape to Rossouw in his playing days) happens to find more regular homes on the flank for the national cause.

Certainly he seems the right sort of No 7 horse for the fast-looming northern hemisphere “courses” on the Bok end-of-year tour, where gains are so often made in claustrophobic, slow yards and bossing collisions can be pivotal.

Another reason for fielding a truly large specimen  like Du Toit at blindside is that he would be a fitting foil for Whiteley, his physical abilities giving the cruiserweight, rangy No 8 more of the licence he likes not to get too bogged down in the heavy traffic and have an opportunity to roam constructively.

The Boks should have at least one other comforting No 7 option in young, emerging specialist Jean-Luc du Preez, who has looked well up to international rigours in 10 appearances - most often off the splinters - thus far.

The Sharks marauder ought to similarly find European pitches to his liking.

There is also still, potentially, value in having Bath-based Louw (though he hasn’t given SA end-of-year tour service since 2013) paired at flank with Siya Kolisi, especially as both players are capable of operating on either the open or blindside.

But Du Toit must have opened enough eyes at Newlands on Saturday to suggest that, especially if he does some specific conditioning over the next few weeks to make him that much more easily transferable from the second row, versatility will help propel him to many more than his current 29 caps - whether that’s his specific intention or not.

While his lock credentials will remain forceful, it just seems he may be returning to the start of a circle, which began when he looked so compelling at No 7 - Paul Willemse and Ruan Botha were the second-rowers - when the Baby Boks won the then-IRB Junior World Championship by beating their NZ counterparts 22-16 in the 2012 final at the very same Newlands that Du Toit so lit up last weekend.

Du Toit seems to come across publicly as a not dissimilar personality to Rossouw: well less than obsessed with “stardom”, happy to skirt the cover shoots or prodigious social media interaction and simply get his elbows dirty consistently and willingly for the good of the greater team cause.

Danie Rossouw earned 63 caps for South Africa, despite the significant Botha-Matfield obstacle, and a multitude of the best team laurels in rugby, a tribute to his positional flexibility and admirable levels of uncomplaining professionalism.

Du Toit looks increasingly like a satisfying carbon copy ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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