Thomas du Toit is relishing the challenge of driving the Cell C Sharks back to winning ways in a high-stakes, high-altitude, United Rugby Championship quarter-final clash at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
“We live for moments like this,” the 13-cap Springbok prop told the URC. “When your back is on the ropes there’s only one way and that’s to fight your way out of it. I think that’s a good place to be in and a good mentality to have.”
Fourth is a better place to be for the Cell C Sharks but they returned to Durban from Belfast in fifth position after ending the regular season with a 24-21 loss against Ulster. Instead of opening up Hollywoodbets Kings Park for a home playoff match, Du Toit and his teammates will instead pack a light travel bag for the flight to Pretoria where they will battle the Vodacom Bulls for a ticket to the semi-finals.
The Cell C Sharks have won both of the first two URC meetings between these teams, beating their Highveld rivals 30-16 in Durban in December and then 29-22 at Loftus Versfeld in the February return match.
However, prior to sweeping the Vodacom Bulls this season, the Cell C Sharks had suffered a string of gruesome losses in Pretoria. They followed up a 41-14 reverse in 2020 Super Rugby Unlocked with a 37-14 Super Rugby setback in March of 2021 and, two months later, a 43-9 drubbing in the Rainbow Cup.
“That last one at Loftus was the first time we’ve won there in a while,” said Du Toit. “It gives you a certain level of confidence going there, knowing that, yes, the altitude makes a difference, but we’ve overcome it.
“You mustn’t underestimate how difficult it is going to Loftus. For a lot of people, they will be the favourites and we recognise that, but it does put a target on their backs.”
There are few with a broader back than Du Toit who, at 135 kilograms, is a sight to behold trundling across the pitch and living up to his nickname, ‘Tank’.
The Cell C Sharks set-piece is docked to the 27-year-old scrum cleat as Du Toit has started in every one of the team’s 18 matches this season.
With the solemnity that only a tighthead prop can convey about the scrum, Du Toit has singled out the set piece as a pivot point for the quarter-final.
“The scrums play a big role and the Bulls have always got a very good set piece. We’ve got some good combinations going in the front row, we’re very much in sync and the scrums will show that.
“The threat from the Bulls is the unpredictability that they’ve added to their game. They have been putting some arrows in their quiver, playing off mauls and scrums, taking opportunities when it’s on in their 22, and when they get momentum they play on top of momentum.”
Predicting the results of playoff matches is risky business for the bookmakers who have installed the Vodacom Bulls as favourites to win the quarter-final, intensifying the pressure on the Cell C Sharks to win a third consecutive derby.
“Subconsciously, playing in a quarter-final definitely changes the game for every player. You’re lying to yourself if you say that there isn’t a certain level of pressure that you put on yourself. But I think that’s a good thing going into a game like this. It’s do or die.”