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09th Mar 2021

He needed a hamstring tendon to make the World Cup. His dad stepped up

Patrick McCarry

du Toit

“He just got out of the car and started farming again.”

Pieter-Steph du Toit won South African Player of the Year, and World Cup and World Rugby Player of the Year in the space of four weeks, in 2019, but his dad reckons he is not even the best sportsperson in his family.

“That’s probably true!” he modestly jokes.

The Stormers and Springboks forward grew up on his family’s vineyard farm, at Riebeek Kasteel, as the eldest of four sons and the grandson of a man that won 14 Test caps and went by the nickname ‘Muscles’.

Pieter’s brother Johann plays in the back row for Stormers and his two younger brothers are handy at rugby too. “Anton studies medicine but played cup rugby while he was at Stellenbosch. He’s almost my size [6-foot-6] but plays fullback. He’s the one guy everyone thought was going to make it, but he preferred studying medicine and having another carer. Probably wiser than me and my other brother!”

Du Toit is joking, but two serious knee injuries, in 2014 and 2015, would have had the South African seriously questioning his career path. On the latest House of Rugby Ireland [LISTEN from 11:00 below] he spoke about how his father stepped up to save his World Cup dream, and how he nearly had his leg amputated last February.

Pieter-Steph du Toit won World Rugby Player of the Year in 2019. (Credit: Sportsfile)

Pieter-Steph du Toit was part of a Junior Boks team, which featured Handre Pollard and Steven Kitshoff, that won the Junior World Championship in 2012.

He made South Africa’s senior team tour of Europe, the following year, and played in wins over Wales and France, only for a bad Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury to wipe out most of 2014.

“Injuries have been a part of my career and a part of my life since I grew up on a farm,” he said. “As you can imagine, we were quite busy and rough on the farm, as we often are in South Africa.

“In 2014, I injured my knee. I tore my ACL and I was out for 11 months. I had a full recovery and everything went well.

“In 2015, I started with the pre-season and everything went really well; the Super Rugby started. And exactly a year and one day after the first injury of my knee, I tore my ACL again, in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs. That was the 2015 World Cup year. I really tried to push hard and play well, to make the squad.

“I went to see the doctor, the Monday after, in Cape Town. My father went with me to the doctor. My mother would normally take me but he said, no, he’ll take me this time. He left the farm for the first time in a few days!

“We went to the doctor and he said, yeah, it’s probably an ACL torn again – make a plan and probably get a donor. I can’t remember the full story, and where they wanted to get a tendon from, but they didn’t want to take from my hamstring again, because they had taken it the first time. Of course, I was racing for time as well and I would just get another injury by harvesting another tendon – it’s a problem as well.

“So my father came up with a smart idea of using his one (hamstring tendon). The doctor said, ‘Of course. Let me do some research’ and speak to some of his other colleagues.

“Two days after that, we both went to the same hospital room. I went first and the doctor cut my knee open, and saw what had to be done. Yeah, they pulled him in afterwards and took his tendon.

“When we came to the farm, we both actually went out of the hospital in wheelchairs, and my mother took us to the farm. He just got out of the car and started farming again. It was like nothing had happened to him. I was on my crutches, struggling to the room and lying on the bed!”

The sacrifice made by Du Toit’s father, Pieter, paid off as son returned in time to play Argentina in The Rugby Championship before he lined out four times for the Springboks as they reached the last four of the World Cup.

“My father always jokes about it,” said du Toit. “Well, I probably take it as a joke but I think he’s quite serious.

“He always says he’s still waiting for his pay-cheque. He never had the opportunity to become a Springbok. But now, a part of him has become a Springbok, and a part of me as well!”

The 28-year-old had a clear enough run of it from 2015 up to and beyond South Africa’s World Cup triumph in 2019. However, a haematoma to his leg – picked up in a Super Rugby game in February 2020 – saw him rushed to hospital as he was rapidly losing blood flow. It was only the quick thinking of the medical staff, and the work of a vascular surgeon in Cape Town, that prevented his leg from being amputated.

“I had a couple of surgeries, after, and a couple of set-backs,” he commented, “but, luckily, everything looks good now. And, I must say, having a physiotherapist around – in my wife – does help!”