Doctors cut out a piece of Pieter-Steph du Toit's father's tendon to help him recover from ACL surgery
Credit: PIETER-STEPH DU TOIT
To understand how Pieter-Steph du Toit can transform himself from a blond-haired, blue-eyed paragon of politeness into a ravenous, green-shirted threshing machine that chewed its way through England’s pack in the 2019 World Cup final, it helps to look at his family tree.
The Springbok flanker is the seventh generation of Pieter Stephanus du Toits, a bloodline stretching back to 1690. His great, great, great grandfather (Pieter Stephanus du Toit II) was a sheep farmer who settled in the Karoo, a place deemed uninhabitable by most European settlers. Every month, he would travel to sell his produce at bazaars in nearby towns and fight other farmers, as you did in those days. So the legend goes that this Pieter Stephanus du Toit was never beaten.
More recently, his grandfather, Piet du Toit, won 14 Tests at prop for the Springboks between 1958 and 1961 and went by the nickname, Spiere, which is Afrikaans for “muscles”. The week before he died, aged 60, in 1996, he ran a marathon.
The shirts worn by Spiere now adorn the walls of the Du Toit family farm, the Kloovenburg wine estate, which is about 50 miles north-east of Cape Town. Pieter-Steph’s World Cup-winning shirt occupies pride of place in the wine-tasting room, and his father, Pieter, is keeping aside space for a jersey from a successful Lions series.
Pieter-Steph is the oldest of four rugby-playing brothers: Johan, who played against the Lions for the Stormers in their final warm-up game; Anton; and Daniel. Growing up, they would play touch for hours in their garden Pieter-Steph and Johan on one side, the father, Anton and Daniel on the other. “The rules were meant to be touch rugby for them but we could tackle,” Pieter says. “After five minutes. it was full contact. They would destroy all my beautiful plants and flowers.”
Johan du Toit, here alongside father Pieter du Toit, played against the Lions for the Stormers in their final warm-up game
Credit: STEVE HAAG SPORTS
There will be a fair few international players who will empathise with those plants. At 6ft 6in and a shade under 19st, Du Toit has an engine that could power a cruise liner.
In the World Cup final, he almost single-handedly made a mess of England’s breakdown, denying them the quick ball they had thrived off earlier in the tournament. It was no surprise that he was voted World Player of the Year. Yet Pieter never expected stardom of Pieter-Steph or any of his boys. Rather than sending them to one of the top rugby schools, they all attended Hoerskool Swartland in the nearby town of Malmesbury where they competed in hockey and athletics as well as rugby. “If I could pick one to put my money on, it would have been Anton, who had the ball sense,” he says. What Pieter-Steph had was a single-minded determination bordering on tunnel vision. Overlooked by the local Western Province, he was instead picked up by the Sharks where he quickly thrived, making his international debut within a year of his first club match in 2013.
Pieter-Steph du Toit won the World Cup with South Africa in 2019
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
His ascent, however, was checked by a number of setbacks including two anterior cruciate ligament injuries in the space of a year. The second occurred just six months before the World Cup. The diagnosis was absolute: he was out of the tournament. Tears gushed like open taps. But that evening Pieter formulated a plan. “I don’t know where the thought came from,” Pieter says. “ I think it must be God who put that thought there. I asked the doctor if we could take a piece of my tendon and give it to Pieter-Steph.”
As soon as he established it was theoretically possible, Pieter signed a mountain of disclaimers promising he would not sue the hospital. “So, they took a slice out of me like biltong to strengthen Pieter-Steph’s ACL,” Pieter says. “We both went out on wheelchairs but then I was walking first, which I like to remind him of.” Four months later, Pieter-Steph was playing again.
That was not the last of his misfortune. Last year, while playing for the Stormers against the Blues, Du Toit suffered a dead leg. He played on only to sustain a knock in the exact same place, causing him to suffer a potentially fatal condition known as acute compartment syndrome. His leg swelled to twice its natural size. At one stage, amputation looked 50-50. Even after the doctors made a 16-inch incision, they were unable to close the wound so it was left open for the next 14 days.
The rehabilitation, largely conducted on the family farm, was suitably gruelling, but 427 days after the injury Du Toit returned, just in time for the Lions series. “He has not had it easy, but it is has made him have a very strong mind,” Pieter says. “The Du Toits are all fighters. He is a fighter. We don’t give up.”