Left foot forward

PUBLISHED: April 25, 2005

Gaffie du Toit is often criticised for what he isn’t. Ever since his debut for the Boks in 1998, he has polarised opinion. There are those who have never rated him, and in their minds, his weaknesses are magnified and his strengths forgotten.

Some players would be completely flustered by such ill feeling. Not Du Toit. He knows that despite a difficult start to the season, Gert Smal still backs him. As does Jake White. The people that matter.

‘Jake and Gert have been very supportive,’ Du Toit confirms. ‘I enjoy playing under them both. But the way it’s going now, I definitely need to improve if I want to make the Bok side this year.’

Du Toit does not need to be told he’s underperformed this season. By his own high standards, he has not started the Vodacom Super 12 as he would have liked. ‘Look, I am disappointed. It hasn’t been my best year for the Investec Stormers, and I’m struggling to find some form. Like a lot of the other players in the side, I struggled to get going early on. I’d like to lift it a bit, at least by 30%.’

Du Toit’s acknowledgement is indicative equally of his character and of the difficulty of the competition. He makes no excuses, but maintains that some fans underestimate how grueling the Vodacom Super 12 is.

‘Physically, Super 12 and Test rugby are the same,’ Du Toit says. ‘In my opinion, the difference comes down to tactics. Test rugby is a lot more conservative as there is a lot more kicking. It’s more about winning, whereas in the Super 12 you always have the bonus points to consider.’

‘Playing against such talented opposition every week is what the Vodacom Super 12 is about. You’re playing the best players that three great rugby nations have to offer.’

The Crusaders result has led to assertions that the Investec Stormers simply lack BMT. Du Toit has endured such criticism for longer than most, especially regarding his ability to slot pressure kicks.

‘I kick vital kicks over sometimes, an example being the one pressure kick to draw the match against the Highlanders, ‘Du Toit responds. ‘Maybe it’s not my strong point, but I’ll always be the first to volunteer to take the kicks that decide matches. I’ll continue to do my best.’

Du Toit’s percentage as a goalkicker is not reflective of his talent. At Test level, he is hovering around 65%. ‘I haven’t hit the percentages I would have liked. It’s one aspect of my game I definitely want to improve. I’m trying out a couple of new things this year, and I’ll keep on working to try and improve my results.’

‘I’d put my less-than-satisfactory strike rate down to confidence mainly, but there’s a few technical things I’d like to fix.’ Whereas his goal kicking needs improvement, his tactical kicking out of hand remains world class. Like the Paulse sidestep or Skinstad dummy, a massive Du Toit torpedo that sends the opposition forwards trudging back for as much as 60m is fast becoming a trademark.

That huge left boot has meant that Du Toit has drifted between fullback and flyhalf too often to remember. Everyone has an opinion about where he’s best suited, but du Toit has always maintained that he’s happy playing anywhere in the interests of the team.

‘It’s still the case that I really don’t mind either position. It comes down to coaches having different opinions on where I’m suited. At the Boks, I helped out on the wing. I don’t mind, as long as I play and I’m able to contribute to the side.’

One of the few positives from last weekend was the willingness of the back three to counter with ball in hand. So often this season, South African fullbacks in all four franchises have resorted to the boot as a matter of first course, rather than desperation.

‘I think as South Africans we’ve become too scared to take the risk. We’re too conservative sometimes, and I spoke to Carel about this. That I wasn’t happy with the amount of ball I was kicking. I know I can attack, I’ve proved it before and I’d like to try to run more.’

Du Toit does not believe criticism of all South African backline players’ tendency to kick is unjustified.

‘All the players from New Zealand and Australia think that we are too conservative. There’s a perception that we never attack them, and as a result they hang back and counter us rather easily.’

A problem highlighted by Professor Tim Noakes in the early rounds of the Vodacom Super 12 was the conditioning of all our players. Noakes is of the opinion that our top players are not performing because of burn out, and has advocated that 10 Springboks need to be pulled out of the early internationals in order to be fit for the VodacomTri-Nations.

As a senior Springbok, Du Toit agrees. ‘I find I’ve got niggles that I’ve brought from last year still. After we came back from the Bok tour, we had two weeks to rest and then we had to start again. We get the occasional rest during the season, but it’s always active rest. You still have to run, you still have to gym. It’s basically just resting from contact, but it doesn’t allow existing injuries to recover. There is a lot of rugby, and I foresee a change in the scheduling soon. There’s got to be something different, or okes are going to burn out early.’

Words: Chris Hewitt