JP Pietersen has had a big role to play on and off the field for the struggling Sharks this season, writes MIKE GREENAWAY.
JP Pietersen, an elder statesman of the South African game at just 28, cracks into a smile when he recalls the day Dick Muir called the then 22-year-old into his Kings Park office for a chat in 2008.
Muir, Pietersen’s head coach at the Sharks and future backline coach at the Springboks, was not smiling.
‘He looked me in the eye and said: “How many tries did you score in Super 14 last year?”
‘I answered: “12” [the most in the competition in 2007],’ Pietersen recalls.
‘And how many in 2008?’ Muir enquired.
‘Er, well, none …’
‘Exactly!’ Muir said. ‘Now take that f**king World Cup medal off from around your neck and start playing some rugby.’
Pietersen was rocked by the lecture from the usually amiable Muir but he could not argue.
‘Dick was right. My attitude had gone for a ball of s**t. I was cruising,’ he says. ‘I thought this game was easy, with a Super 14 final and a World Cup win in my first full year of senior rugby.
‘I had gone from being a k*k lock at school to the Pumas in Witbank [where his uncle Christie Noble had taken him almost literally under his wing] and the next thing I was at the Sharks Academy, and then playing big-time rugby almost immediately. Dick took a chance on me and my career took off, and then in 2008 I guess I let him down by thinking I was bigger than the game.’
The moral of the story is that Pietersen accepts he is all grown up now and has a major role to play at the struggling Sharks in 2015. He says he has a message to convey to his teammates, the younger players in particular.
‘It all comes down to attitude – on and off the field. If you are in the Sharks squad, you have talent, otherwise you would not be there. And if the performances are not up to scratch it is because the attitude is not what it should be,’ he says. ‘I have learned that us players tend to let the coaches take the blame when the team goes through a rough patch. It’s the easy way out.’
Pietersen says his contribution to the team discussions is that the players are the ones who must take responsibility and fight their way out of the hole.
‘My experience of being on a losing run and how to turn it around is that the players have to add desire to the knowledge they are surrounded by in the change room,’ he says. ‘We have tons of experience. We know what has been going wrong – and in my opinion it’s because we have gone into our shells and stopped believing in our ability.
‘Once you enter that negative mental space and start playing conservatively, the downward spiral accelerates,’ he adds. ‘The best form of defence for a battling team is attack. We started the season wanting to play “bums-on-seats” rugby, but we seem to have forgotten that.
‘What have we got to lose? We aren’t going to win playing the way we are, so let’s back each other and have a full go and score some tries. It’s amazing how quickly a season can turn around when you get that elusive win. You get your tails up and you play
Indeed, time waits for no man and Pietersen, so long a carefree laaitie at the Sharks, had accrued 158 caps for them across all competitions (116 in Super Rugby) by the end of April, as well as 59 Test caps for his country, plus 25 matches for the Panasonic Wild Knights, the champions of Japan.
In these troubled times for the Sharks, the cue is for Pietersen to step up and be accountable, and he is doing just that.
‘I keep telling the younger players [like André Esterhuizen, S’bura Sithole, Fred Zeilinga and SP Marais] to go out and express themselves,’ he says. ‘When a team is down on its luck, it needs heroes. This is the best chance to make a name for yourself. Step up, have a go, don’t be afraid of making a mistake. It is far better to go down fighting than not to have tried, and when you start fighting, you stop going down!’
Pietersen has been doing more talking off the field than on it because of a pectoral muscle injury. He was also a late starter in Super Rugby because of his Japanese commitments.
Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold has been using Pietersen at 13, a position he occasionally played under former coach John Plumtree. As he gets older, a permanent transition from wing to outside centre would make sense, but Pietersen is having none of it.
‘Wing is my preferred position. That is where my Springbok ambitions are,’ he says. ‘They like to play me there in Japan because of my size. I can make more of a physical impact there on attack and defence.’
– This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine