Off the radar with Joe Pietersen

In the latest SA Rugby magazine, CRAIG LEWIS caught up with former Stormers utility back Joe Pietersen to see what he is up to now?

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Rugby career

For ardent rugby followers, Joe Pietersen isn’t as far ‘off the radar’ as many may think. And yet, his unique lifestyle as part-time rugby player and part-time nature conservationist helps take him out of the spotlight.

Pietersen became a household name at Western Province and the Stormers between 2004 and 2010 as a utility back who is equally at ease at flyhalf, fullback and wing. He was part of a special crop of players during his first spell in the Cape, sharing a dressing room with the likes of Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Bryan Habana, Duane Vermeulen and Andries Bekker.

Pietersen, easily recognisable by his mop of flash blond hair, made a combined 115 Super Rugby and Currie Cup appearances for the Cape union in his two stints (2004-2010 and 2012-2013) which was interrupted by a season playing for French club Bayonne.

After that, he transitioned into a journeyman of note, playing for Biarritz (2013-14), the Cheetahs (2015), the Sharks (2015-16), Japanese side the Seawaves (2016-18) and American Major League Rugby team San Diego Legion (2018-present).

‘I never thought I was going to play rugby this long,’ Pietersen tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘Rugby has given me everything I have and I’m grateful for it.’

‘The highlight for me has been being able to be in an environment with mates and having fun playing rugby and earning a salary. It was a pretty good time … We would have 40 000 people at a match consistently, playing alongside some of the best players South Africa has had.

‘I really enjoy exploring and seeing other places and rugby has given me the opportunity to do that. I never would’ve guessed at 20 years old that I would be here at 36 doing the same thing and having a great time.

‘I came over to the USA in 2018 to check things out at the Legion. I played in a semi-final game for them, it was fun and since then I come back for five to six months of the year on a contract to play.

‘You chat and you’re involved in growing the game in terms of saying this is what it’s like in Super Rugby and at Currie Cup level, this is what you’ve experienced in France and these scenarios work in this kind of set-up. So it’s nice to still be involved in rugby almost on a full-time basis for a few months. I’ve set a few goals for myself and if I don’t reach those I think I should stop.’

Life after rugby

Pietersen is in the transitional phase of switching between professions.

‘Transition isn’t something I want to have a blunt cut into, which is what you’re used to with rugby guys. Outside the financial side, there’s the emotional side, the team set-up, the mates, the whole thing, everything you know for so long falls away and a lot of guys nosedive when that transition is so immediate,’ he says.

Pietersen’s life and interest away from the game revolve around the conservation of endangered species in Africa and in South Africa in particular.

‘I grew up outdoors and the bush has always been part of our lives. In 2012, I did a thing in the bush and I was exposed to a bit of rhino conservation just when the “rhino wars” were picking up.

‘I started a non-profit organisation and initially our aim was to grow and support rhino conservation, but that grew and expanded because of the endangered species list that is endless in South Africa and across Africa.

‘Over the past two years that has snowballed and our organisation has become one of the biggest in terms of poaching prevention with dehorning projects and relocating and collaring projects for different species.

‘A couple of years ago my brother and I opened a tented lodge where we host guests and get them involved in conservation.

‘I’d say in the next year or two I’ll be in tourism full time. I see myself moving away from rugby, but that said, I’d also like to stay involved at grassroots levels, maybe coach a kid to kick a little bit somewhere in the bush at a small school.’

Family life

Pietersen and wife Corne have an eight-year-old son named Joey, who has autism.

‘Our life is a bit different to what you’d say a typical family is. My wife is pretty much devoted to spending all her time looking after our son, who is non-verbal, but from a functionality point of view is like a little Tarzan,’ Pietersen explains.

‘He is healthy and strong, but that comes with its own challenges. My family go wherever I go, but now that schooling has taken a priority we want to maintain the momentum in terms of his progress.’

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Craig Lewis