Pieter-Steph du Toit cemented his legacy as one of the greatest Springboks of all time with a legendary performance as South Africa edged the All Blacks 12-11 in a nail-biting World Cup final in Saint-Denis on Saturday night to retain the Webb Ellis Cup, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The men in green and gold had to dig deep against a New Zealand team who refused to go away despite losing captain Sam Cane to a red card in the 28th minute.
The desire, physicality, experience and composure of the Boks, along with the unerring boot of Handre Pollard, ultimately allowed the Boks to hang on to claim a record fourth world championship and give coach Jacques Nienaber the perfect send-off on a wet and windy Parisian evening.
All 23 members of the Bok matchday squad played a role in the dramatic triumph, but for the sake of our weekly series, our top three standouts were:
Pieter-Steph du Toit
Four years ago, Du Toit was anointed the best player in the world. He was talismanic and played a pivotal role in powering the Springboks to Rugby Championship and World Cup glory.
A year earlier, he was the heart of a 36-34 win over the world champion All Blacks in Wellington, the Boks’ first triumph over the old foe on New Zealand soil in nine years.
It came on the back of being blown out by the Kiwis in their two previous meetings (57-15 in 2016 and 57-0 in 2017) and after back-to-back defeats to Argentina and Australia.
That night marked the resurrection of the Boks, and Du Toit was at the coalface. The enduring memory of that all-time classic clash was the back-row warrior being overcome with emotion after referee Nigel Owens signalled the war had been won.
And, for as iconic as that performance was, Du Toit topped it on the grandest stage of them all. “The Malmesbury Missile” produced his magnum opus in the biggest game of his life, a superhuman showing that saw him make no less than 28 ferocious tackles.
Magnificent from start to finish, the two-metre tall, 119kg blindside flank poured his heart and soul into the titanic Test, including making three smashing hits on Jordie Barrett, a huge tackle on Richie Mo’unga and a vital cover tackle on Rieko Ioane.
The terminator also tirelessly chased high balls, took a rebound off one of Pollard’s kicks, won a turnover and made a late break down the left touchline. An extraordinary hybrid athlete and the ultimate workhorse, the 31-year-old’s performance was truly the stuff of legend.
Look up clutch and you’ll find a photo of Pollard. Well, you ought to. There’s no better big match player in the game today than the iceman born in Somerset-West. He was born for the big occasion and bred to perform under the brightest lights.
He’s done it his whole career, from his days as a schoolboy prodigy at Paarl Gimnasium, when I first interviewed him, to his time with the South African Under-20s and throughout his decorated tenure as the Boks’ ace flyhalf, including landing the winning kicks in the 2019 semi-final against Wales and last weekend’s final four fixture against England.
Jesse Kriel, in the acclaimed Chasing the Sun documentary about the Boks’ World Cup triumph in 2019, said he’d bet his house on Pollard slotting a clutch kick and the 29-year-old did it four times over, including nailing a 48-metre penalty goal, to score all of the Boks’ points.
Moreover, his kicking out of hand was pinpoint all evening, putting the All Blacks under immense pressure and allowing the likes of Du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, birthday boy Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse to contest in the air. On the flip side, he was a safe pair of hands under the high ball, while he also took the ball to the line when the opportunity arose.
Plagued by injury over the last two seasons, his mental fortitude to play his first full 80-minute Test in over a year in the Paris pressure cooker was nothing short of heroic, with blood dripping down his face from a nasty gash under his left eye.
He, too, is one of the greats, a general who stands alone as the only flyhalf who’s steered the Boks to two world championships.
He might be undersized for a back-rower and unheralded outside of South Africa, but there’s no greater weapon off the bench than the national treasure with his trademark busted nose.
Smith, in replacing Duane Vermeulen on the hour mark, showed again he’s second to none as a super-sub. A ball of energy and intensity, he played like a man possessed, a predator in perpetual motion whose pursuit of the pill was greater than Gollum’s quest to find his “Precious” in the Lord of the Rings.
The 30-year-old produced not one, not two, but three critical turnovers and made a try-saving tackle on Mark Telea, who caused all sorts of problems for the Boks. Many South Africans are calling for the man known as Kwagga to become one of the Big Five, while others insist, he is the Big Five rolled into one.