The Ultimate Springbok World Cup Final XV: Pieter-Steph trumps Juan Smith
AS part of The Glory of '95 series, three of IOL Sport's rugby writers decided to pick their ultimate Springbok World Cup Final XV. Today we look at blindside flank.
Ruben Kruger (1995), Juan Smith (2007), Pieter-Steph du Toit (2019)
JACQUES VAN DER WESTHUYZEN
The late Ruben Kruger, who passed away in 2010, was a rugby “ meneer” who in his young days and up to his retirement in 2000 was considered one of the great flanks of the game. He scored a crucial try in the 1995 semi-final against France and should have been awarded another in the final against New Zealand.
It mattered little as the Boks went on to triumph in their first attempt; Kruger’s name forever part of the joyous history of the 1995 team. He was, indeed, a Bok star but when compared to Juan Smith and Pieter-Steph du Toit, there’s just no comparison.
Both Smith and Du Toit stood out as superstars in the No 7 jersey and in this selection it’s a shoot-out between these two men - real powerhouses of Bok rugby.
Smith was a 22-year-old rookie at the 2003 tournament and considered a No 8, but in 2007 he was one of the world’s best blindside flankers and a player on top of his game. He was sensational throughout the tournament in France and was my Bok player of the tournament. Smith had it all: he carried strongly and got over the gain-line, he hardly missed tackles and he was a big lineout weapon.
More recently, Du Toit’s rise, meanwhile, has been nothing short of brilliant. He was a lock at the 2015 tournament and finished the 2019 season as a No 7 flank and the best player on the planet. His engine never falters, never runs flat; he’s a huge carrier and defender and a player who’s made the blindside position his own. Still a strong lineout option after shifting to the back-row, Du Toit is also a multiple SA Rugby Player of the Year winner.
It’s a tough call to have to make, but I’m going with Smith. A hard-as-nails player who hardly ever had a bad game in the Bok jersey.
If this selection was about the best Springbok blindside flank in the modern era, Juan Smith may have pipped Pieter-Steph du Toit for the No 7 jersey.
Smith arguably ran better lines with ball-in-hand, with his silky runs near the fringes often punching holes in the defence.
The Cheetahs legend was also a better lineout jumper – a ‘money-ball’ at the back for Jake White’s teams, from where it was easier to launch attacks – while he was no slouch on defence either in that 2007 title-winning campaign. Smith also featured as a youngster in 2003, where he started at No 8 in the losing quarter-final against New Zealand.
But Du Toit – who was exposed at flank as a late replacement for Willem Alberts in the shock 2015 World Cup opening loss to Japan – grew into the ultimate No 7 in 2019.
The 27-year-old employed his relentless style from the start against the All Blacks in Yokohama, and scored the Boks’ only try to bring them back into the game.
He was a busy presence in his next match against Italy, but it was really in the playoff matches against Japan, Wales and England that Du Toit stood out.
His tendency to rush out of the defensive line to put the opposition’s inside backs under pressure came to the fore in the final, where England flyhalf George Ford was hunted down to the extent that he was substituted early in the second half.
Apart from high tackle rate – ninth overall with 61 – Du Toit even competed at the breakdowns, and claimed some lineouts too.
He is certainly more direct than someone like Smith with ball-in-hand, so he lacks that subtlety in his game. But Pieter-Steph du Toit was so good at the 2019 Rugby World Cup that he was chosen as the Player of the Year…
Pieter-Steph du Toit
If we are looking at the blindside flanks that played for the Boks in their three World Cup final triumphs, we are looking at legends of the game in Ruben Kruger (’95) and Juan Smith (2007) and a legend in the making in Pieter-Steph du Toit (2019).
The late Kruger was incredibly respected by his opponents and I recall All Black John Hart saying that he was one of the best flankers he had ever seen. Known as the “silent assassin” because he said little but was lethal on the field, Kruger could well have won the Boks the ‘95 final long before Stransky’s drop goal had what TV replays showed to be a legitimate try been allowed by the referee.
Smith was hard as nails, and was at the heart of the Boks’ forward effort. He was just about the perfect blindside flank — he carried the ball with pace and physicality, defended ferociously and was a very good lineout option. Playing in a back row with wonderful loosies in Schalk Burger and Danie Rossouw, Smith flourished in France in ’07 and had a magnificent tournament.
This brings us to Pieter-Steph du Toit, not only the best player on the park in the final against England but the World Player of the Year for 2019. Thank heavens Rassie Erasmus moved him permanently to flank from the second row so that his talent is best exploited.
At 2m (six ft ‘6) and 120kgs and with plenty of athleticism, he is a monster on the flank , especially as he has a superb work rate. This big engine just never falters for 80 minutes. Du Toit terrorised England in the final, smashing them back in the tackle or heaving himself over the advantage line, as well as working tirelessly to get himself in position to support his teammates.
Pieter-Steph du Toit
Pieter-Steph sneaks into the team following his performance in 2019.
Ultimate Springbok World Cup Final XV (so far): 15 Percy Montgomery, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Hennie le Roux. 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Joost van der Westhuizen, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit ...