The Springbok flanker was the best player on the field in the final win over New Zealand in October
Two-time World Cup-winner Pieter-Steph du Toit believes that a stint playing in Japan has made him a more complete player.
Du Toit was one of South Africa’s most influential players at the recent World Cup in France. The Springbok blindside flank completed 28 tackles against New Zealand in the final, and was named Player of the Match.
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That performance capped an incredible comeback by du Toit, who nearly lost a leg in the wake of a freak injury back in 2020. The decision to move to Japan in 2021 played a key role in his battle back to form.
While it’s widely believed that tournaments such as the Champions Cup – and even domestic leagues like the Premiership, Top 14 and United Rugby Championship – are closer to Test rugby, the evidence suggests that du Toit and a clutch of Boks have benefitted from a stint in Japan’s League One.
More than half of the 35-man squad that won the 2023 World Cup are based overseas. Eight of those players are plying their club trade in Japan, namely namely du Toit (Toyota Verblitz) Damian de Allende (Panasonic Wild Knights), Faf de Klerk and Jesse Kriel (Canon Eagles), Cheslin Kolbe (Suntory Sungoliath), Malcolm Marx (Kubota Spears), Franco Mostert (Honda Heat) and Kwagga Smith (Shizuoka Blue Revs).
Lood de Jager (Wild Knights) was ruled out of the Boks’ 2023 World Cup squad at the eleventh hour due to a chest ailment.
Kolbe is the latest high-profile South African player to move to Japan, and recently marked his arrival with a series of selfies with Suntory Sungoliath team-mate Sam Cane, who was sent off in the RWC final in Paris in October.
The All Blacks captain suggested that the Boks’ World Cup success will force New Zealand to reconsider their overseas selection policy. The fact that nine Bok players are based in Japan highlights the quality of the league.
“A lot of the Springboks have shown the ability to play in League One and go back to international rugby fairly quickly and continue to play their best,” Cane said at a recent news conference in Tokyo.
“If we play well here and get back [to play for the All Blacks] we can show that we’ve improved our games. If we can do that, then maybe the conversation can be had at New Zealand Rugby.”
Du Toit, who is joined at Toyota Verblits by All Black duo Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett, enjoyed some time off after the Boks’ World Cup campaign, and was on the family farm in Riebeek Kasteel – about an hour’s drive from Cape Town – when Rugby World contacted him for a wide-ranging interview.
The du Toits have since returned to their home away from home in Nagoya. The Bok No 7 has turned his attention to the upcoming League One season.
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“The game in Japan continues to grow, with more top players and coaches joining the league every year,” he said.
“The style of rugby is different. What you lose in terms of those big hits you gain in terms of speed. My fitness has gone to the next level since I’ve been here. There’s the added advantage of less travel time, which benefits the guys who want to be closer to their families. All in all, there’s less stress.”
Several other South Africans have made this observation in recent years. De Jager played for the Cheetahs and Bulls before moving to the Sale Sharks. Since joining Panasonic Wild Knights in 2022, the giant lock has enjoyed more opportunities to improve his fitness, rehabilitate long-term injuries and spend quality time with his young family.
Kriel is another who has highlighted the difference between the Japanese league and the competitions in South Africa and Europe. While players in the European tournaments are subjected to a greater workload and travel vast distances over the course of a 10-month season, Kriel and the Japan-based contingent play fewer games and compete within a smaller geographical area.
De Jager and Kriel’s teams met in the semi-finals last season. Marx’s Kubota Spears went on to beat the Wild Knights in the final, and claim the title. Smith was named Player of the Season, while De Klerk, Du Toit and Marx were also included in the Team of the Season.
Toyota Verblitz finished in sixth place. Du Toit, who started at No 8 for much of the campaign and had the opportunity to lead the team, is determined to take his side further in the coming months.
“We struggled a bit last season and made a few mistakes, but I felt that we were starting to gel by the end of the league stage.
“I enjoyed my time at No 8 – I would play there for the Boks if they needed me or if there were injuries, but I realise how many great players there are competing for that position in South Africa and abroad.”
The 2023-24 League One season will commence on 9 December.
Check out the next edition of Rugby World for our extensive interview with double World Cup-winner Pieter-Steph du Toit.