Du Toit overcomes major medical scare to join South Africa’s greats | Jonathan Liew
Initially, there was no need to be concerned. Pieter-Steph du Toit was hit in the left thigh and had to leave the game. He then watched the rest of the game from the sideline. As time passed, the injury started to swell, but he didn’t think much of it. He had dealt with a similar injury in high school and it had healed without any issues. However, about 15 minutes after the game ended, Du Toit notified his team doctor, Jason Suter, that he couldn’t feel his left leg anymore. This was when the gravity of the situation became apparent as a medical emergency.
Du Toit had a haematoma that progressed to an uncommon condition known as acute compartment syndrome. This meant that the tissue in his injured muscle had become enlarged, obstructing blood flow to the rest of his limb. At the time, there were only 43 documented cases of this in medical literature, and nearly half resulted in amputation. However, thanks to Suter’s quick actions in taking him to the hospital, Du Toit was able to avoid this fate. He is a former World Cup champion, a potential future World Cup winner, and now must be considered one of the greatest Springboks of all time.
In Saturday night’s game against the All Blacks, Du Toit made twenty-eight tackles and was named player of the match. This victory also marked South Africa’s fourth win in the men’s World Cup, a first for any country. As he relentlessly pursued Jordie Barrett, it was reminiscent of his previous match against George Ford four years ago. Despite his numerous injuries, including surgeries on both ankles, a cracked sternum, and two anterior cruciate ligament injuries, Du Toit displayed an aura of invincibility. His dedication to the sport even led to his father donating a part of his own hamstring tendon so that Du Toit could continue playing. In February 2020, Du Toit faced yet another obstacle when he developed a haematoma that required emergency vascular surgery to save his leg. This was only the beginning of his challenging journey.
While performing the procedure, the surgeon evaluated certain nerves in the leg, but they did not show any response. Following the surgery, the muscle remained extremely swollen, making it impossible to cover the wound and stitch it. For 12 days, Du Toit’s thigh was exposed to the outside world through a wound that was over a foot long. Whenever he moved his leg, Du Toit could see the gap in the muscle where the doctors had performed the operation. The possibility of him returning to playing rugby seemed unlikely.
After Du Toit’s wound was finally stitched, he had lost approximately 10kg, mainly in muscle mass from his injured thigh. Unfortunately, a lot of the harm to his nerve endings could not be fixed. It took him over a year to return to playing rugby. During this time, Du Toit faced his biggest challenge – persuading others that he could still perform at a high level and that his peak days were not behind him. He proved them wrong by playing in his third World Cup at the age of 31.
The journey back has not been smooth. A hard tackle from Duhan van der Merwe in the 2021 British & Irish Lions series cut short his return, and he only played in three of South Africa’s 13 matches that year. Moving to Toyota Verblitz in Japan’s highly paid but less competitive league raised concerns about his performance level. However, Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus persisted in supporting him. And when you witness his exceptional performance against New Zealand, you realize why.
Nienaber playfully stated that even if a white plastic bag were to blow across the field, the man known as the Malmesbury Missile would likely chase after it. He was truly remarkable, especially in terms of defense which is my area of expertise. In recent games, he showed a strong desire to succeed.
Later on, Du Toit grasped his prize for the match and his second medal as a World Cup champion, and contemplated the path they had all traveled. “I suppose as a team, we thrive on excitement,” he remarked. Maybe when you’ve nearly lost a limb, that additional burst of energy no longer feels like a heavy load. And maybe when you’ve gazed directly into the unknown, the sight of an attacking All Black no longer instills much fear.