Part 1: ‘The Sharks made me who I am’ – Pietersen

In the latest SA Rugby magazine, former Bok and Sharks wing JP Pietersen chatted to editor CRAIG LEWIS about the standout memories from his iconic career.

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*Ed’s note: Part 2 of this interview will be published on Saturday

CL: What were some of the most memorable moments from your career?

JP: A lot of good things happened. There is the funny story of how my career started at the Sharks. I stayed in Morningside, just up the road from the stadium and we played a Friday night game against Boland in the Currie Cup. I just walked down from my house to the stadium fully kitted out with my Sharks gear with the fans. People were just looking at me thinking I’m just a normal ball-boy walking to the stadium to work [laughs]. I scored a try and then walked home afterwards. Just a normal 19-year-old laaitie from Cape Town, arriving in Durban and next thing he knows he is playing for Currie Cup on the big stage. It will always be the funniest story for me. Making my debut at Ellis Park in 2006 with mom and dad in the stands was my favourite part of playing for the Springboks. Just to have my parents in the stadium and to see the tears in their eyes, made me emotional. As a young boy growing up, I dreamed of playing for the Springboks.

How did you manage that step up to the Springboks so soon after making your professional debut?

As a youngster, you don’t think about it that like that. You just go with the flow and adjust because there are a lot of senior guys that are on your case. It’s something that I learned and adjusted to quickly; how to be a professional rugby player. Be on time and perform at your top level every time you’re out on the field. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing a game or if it’s a training session, you have to have a high standard of performing. Luckily for me, I had a lot of experienced guys around who showed me the way and helped me become a World-Cup winner at 21. There are guys who played 100 Test matches, who never won a World Cup or never even played at a World Cup. So to win the World Cup at 21 was something I’ll treasure forever. It was only years later that I realised what I achieved was so special.

When you look back on your Springbok career, did you ever expect to play as many Tests as you did?

From when I started playing for the Springboks, I always said if I play just one game I’d be happy. But when you get into the Springbok environment with those big-name players around you and play that first game, you realise “flip man, I want to be part of this thing for a very long time”. When you drive into a stadium and you have people cheering for you and going mal next to the field, you realise what an honour it is to play for your country. You don’t want to disappoint the supporters, because when the Springboks win, the whole country is happy and when the boys lose, they are not happy at all. When I was in that environment, I always remember what Jean de Villiers told me straight after my first Test: “Congratulations. You did it, you became a Springbok. But that is the easy part. The hardest part is to stay here now.” And that stuck in my head, because it reminded me that I need to perform and always be at my best to be a part of this group. When you’re playing for the Springboks, you play with your heroes, the guys you look up to. I was still in school when Jean de Villiers came on to the scene and the next thing I know I’m with him on the field and the man is giving me hugs and advice. And it just sits in your head that you want to be a part of the team for a long time. I never told myself I’d like to play 100 games or 50 games, I just said I want to play for as long as possible.

The Sharks are a team that you spent a lot of time with. How special is the franchise to you?

The Sharks made me who I am as a rugby player and as a human being. Coming from Stellenbosch, a boytjie who can’t even speak proper English, to arrive in Durban and be in the academy … that was hectic for me. So to play for the Sharks for so long and in a packed stadium, I’ll be forever grateful to the union for what they invested in me to make me the person I am today. As for memories, we lost the 2007 Super Rugby final at the end, but that whole year building up to the final was special for us as a group. Rugby works out in funny ways, but everything happens for a reason. The next year, in 2008, we won the Currie Cup in front of a packed Kings Park and it was just a relief that we could give back to the fans who had been so loyal to us. And lastly to work at the stadium every day, I’ve aways been a passionate Sharks fan myself, so to be involved at the union after my playing career and to be at the stadium and sit here everyday for work, is something I’m fortunate to experience.

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Craig Lewis