Pieter‑Steph du Toit: ‘I grew up with a sense of destiny – I feel responsibility carrying this name’

Pieter Stephanus du Toit VIII fills the air with a high-pitched wail. He’s hungry. It’s past breakfast time and he’s run out of patience. He doesn’t care that his father, Pieter Stephanus du Toit VII, has just begun an interview with the Guardian over the phone. He isn’t concerned that the man holding him is World Rugby’s player of the year for 2019, a World Cup winner, and one of the most important members of the Springbok squad for the British & Irish Lions series in South Africa. All he’s interested in is the grumble in his stomach.

“He’s the boss,” the elder Du Toit jokes from his family farm in the small town of Riebeek-Kasteel about 50 miles north-east of Cape Town as we speak for the first time a few weeks before the Lions series. “He definitely keeps me grounded.”

So too does the notion of legacy. After bequeathing his son with the same name as his own, he has continued a tradition that began in the 1820s and now spans eight generations. Du Toit’s grandfather – Pieter Stephanus du Toit V – played 14 Tests at prop for the Springboks, making his debut against France in 1958. The walls of the farmhouse are plastered with sepia images of former glories and adorned with rugby jerseys from a bygone age. “I grew up with a sense of destiny,” Du Toit says. “That heritage has always resonated with me. It’s the same with my name. I feel a sense of responsibility carrying this name.”

Not that there are sacred cows on the farm. Du Toit and his younger brother Johan – also a professional rugby player with Western Province – once found an old pair of their grandfather’s boots and brought them to their father. Rather than place them on a mantlepiece, Pieter Stephanus du Toit VI encouraged his boys to use them.

“They only lasted two sessions and completely fell apart,” Du Toit recalls. “They were so heavy and came halfway up my calves. My father could have been precious about them but he wasn’t. It put things in perspective for me. It told me that I could chase my dreams no matter what. And it’s funny to think now that I’ve literally walked in my grandfather’s boots and also became a Springbok.”

That he will be lacing up against Warren Gatland’s Lions on Saturday as part of the starting 15 is a minor miracle. Du Toit came perilously close to losing his left leg after sustaining a haematoma in a series of tackles while playing for Stormers against Auckland Blues on 29 February 2020. His situation quickly worsened as it developed into the potentially fatal condition known as acute compartment syndrome whereby blood supply is blocked from an area of the body as a result of an inflamed muscle. Amputation is often necessary for survival.

“I got the first knock around the 25th minute and my leg went dead but a bit of ice on it helped,” Du Toit remembers. “Then around the 50th minute I got hit there again, it was a shoulder to the inside of my quad. After that one I couldn’t give 100% anymore and I called the doc over and told him something was wrong. But I wasn’t concerned until the end of the game when I stood up to shake hands and I could tell something wasn’t right.”

According to the Stormers team doctor, Jason Suter, “there have been only 43 cases [of the condition] listed” in academic literature. Underlining Du Toit’s misfortune, it was the second time he had experienced it, having suffered from a similar injury in 2010 during his final year of high school.

Du Toit went straight to his local hospital. The feeling of numbness was swiftly replaced with a wave of hot pain as he was whisked into surgery where a 16-inch incision was made to alleviate the mounting pressure. When he awoke through a medicated fog the next morning, Du Toit learned that the doctors were unable to close the gaping wound.

“They told me that the whole muscle exploded out when they made the cut,” he explains, offering to send photographic evidence, which I politely decline. “It’s like when you shake a Coke bottle and open the lid. You can’t close it immediately because it all comes gushing out.”

After five days in hospital, Du Toit was sent home as there were fears his exposed flesh might get infected. With a vacuum dressing holding in place the contents of his thigh, he returned to the comfort of his farm. Confined to his bed, the 6ft 5in athlete with a fighting weight of 264lb, lost 22lb of muscle mass.

At the third attempt the wound was patched up. Then the country went into lockdown which allowed Du Toit the space to begin his exhaustive road to recovery. He showed improvement after five months of rehabilitation – assisted by his physiotherapist wife Willemien – until a plateau was reached.

“That’s when I actually started to worry,” Du Toit says. “Every athlete knows that serious injuries take a while to heal, but when I just stopped getting better I didn’t know what was going on. When I flexed my leg there was a visible hole in the muscle.”

Two more operations – this time conducted by the same doctor who treated him in 2010 – once again prevented amputation. But his leg would never be the same. Irreparable nerve damage has accounted for a 10% loss in strength. At the elite level that Du Toit operates, that could mean the difference between closing down the Lions half-backs or missing the game-breaking tackle. “I never thought about life with one leg,” Du Toit says, maintaining a casual tone. “I just kept my head down and focused on the job at hand.”

He credits his resolve to his Christian faith as well as the “Du Toit genes”, which he mentions only half in jest but which have helped him recover from previous setbacks including a cracked sternum, surgeries on both ankles and two knee operations. Either way, when he took the field again on 1 May this year, 427 days after his injury, he played all 80 minutes against the Sharks in the Rainbow Cup and followed that with another 80 against the Bulls a week later. It’s no wonder the Stormers head coach, John Dobson, labelled him “a freak of nature”.

Not that fans of England will need convincing of Du Toit’s prowess. There wasn’t a blade of grass inside the International Stadium in Yokohama that he didn’t trample over during South Africa’s 32-12 World Cup final win in 2019. He was an ever-present bane in the life of the fly-half George Ford, a crowning performance across a year that saw him recognised as the best player in the world.

“I want to be spoken about as a great of the game,” he says. “Every time I achieve a goal I move the goalposts further back. Winning the Under-20 World Cup [2012], making my Springbok debut, beating New Zealand, winning a World Cup, being South Africa’s player of the year [2016, 2018 and 2019], world player of the year; these are just stepping stones. I’m never satisfied.”

A Lions series victory would be a significant milestone. Du Toit describes the event that comes around every 12 years for South Africans as the equal of a World Cup final. The pandemic has stripped much of the tour’s magic and Du Toit laments the absence of fans as well as the economic pitfalls for a country in need of a boost, but says he “can’t wait to touch that famous red jersey”.

“It’s massive, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, most players never get to experience it,” he explains, quickening his pace as the eighth person to be named Pieter Stephanus du Toit starts up again. “If we can win it, after the year and half we’ve had, that would be incredible.”

When we catch up again a month later as the series looms Du Toit is cooped up in a hotel room, bored for the first time in his life and occasionally comfort eating to pass the time. The Springboks squad for the first Test has just been announced. For anyone affiliated to South African rugby in any capacity, the match can’t come soon enough.

A spate of violent protests have rocked the country and caused untold damage to an economy further crippled by a third wave of Covid. The Springboks, rightly or wrongly heralded as beacons of hope in dark times, have not escaped the virus even inside tight bio-bubbles. A number of players – including the captain, Siya Kolisi – as well as the head coach, Jacques Nienaber, tested positive and were forced to self-isolate. “It’s been tough, I’m not going to lie,” Du Toit says, still sounding as upbeat as he did when he was caring for his son. “It’s felt like prison at times.”

To help her husband maintain his sanity, Willemien sent home-made rusks (traditional Afrikaans biscuits) and two books that underwent their own period of isolation and sanitisation process. The first, ‘Zero to One’ by Peter Thiel offers a guide to building a startup company. “This bubble experience has made me think about life after rugby,” Du Toit says. The second, ‘Calm the F**k Down’ by Sarah Knight helps the reader control what they can and accept what they can’t.

“It’s perfect,” Du Toit chuckles. “With everything that’s going on, the virus, the political stuff, the violence, it can feel like the end of the world is approaching. But there are more good people than bad people.”

When asked if the recent turmoil has served as motivation for the side, Du Toit takes a second to reply. “Our motto is to win,” he says. “Everything else comes after. If we play for that stuff we can get distracted and not focus on what we’re supposed to be doing. You can’t change the world with a Springbok win, but you can make a small difference in someone’s life. We have the power to bring people happiness. That’s real, even if it’s not going to solve all the problems we have.”

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