In the latest SA Rugby magazine, retired JP Pietersen opens up about the coaches who moulded his career, lessons learned as a player, and his new coaching role at the Sharks.
Who are some of the coaches or mentors who have shaped your career?
Dick Muir and Jake White are the two obvious ones. But John Plumtree also played a massive part in my success. Dick picked me up as a raw, talented youngster, but Plumtree was the one who honed my skills and shaped me into the player that I ultimately became. He taught me to stay hungry for success and he was the one who motivated me to believe that there is more to than just playing for the Sharks. I also have to give a big shoutout to Peter de Villiers. I always tell the youngsters that 2008 was my setback season as a rugby player and the biggest wake-up call of my career. I was the top try-scorer for the Sharks in 2007, and then in 2008 I couldn’t score a try. I was out of place, out of pace, and just nowhere on the field. Any new coach wouldn’t have picked me, but Peter de Villiers picked me in his squad. I didn’t play in the mid-year Test series and was only selected in the Tri-Nations. Throughout it all, he just told me if I want the starting jersey back, this is what I need to do. Just to be in the squad and see how the other guys who were ahead of me in the pecking order were performing, and that helped me get back the hunger and desire to play again. I’ll always be thankful to him for giving me that opportunity to prove myself again and to win back the jersey. They are the four coaches that were involved and contributed the most to my career. Obviously mom and dad were always there in support, calling in before and after every game. We’d have little reviews of my games. And I’d usually know when I had a bad game because then all I’d hear from them is “we love you, we love you, we love you”. And when I had a good game, they were so happy that I could hear it in their voices. Towards the end of my playing days, my wife played a massive role, keeping me focused and motivated. When I came home grumpy and down in the dumps, she was always the one to lift me up and give me space but she also reminded me of how good I am followed by some tough love by telling me to get over myself [laughs].
You mentioned your poor form in 2008. How did you get your career back on track?
It was a case of, if you didn’t put the hard work in, you’re not going to get reward and you’re not going to be part of the team. That train doesn’t wait for anyone. It’s not up to any coach to get you fit and in shape. I realised it’s up to yourself. Talent can only take you so far and if you as a player don’t come to the party, if you don’t want to put the extra hard work in, you’re not going to achieve your goals. And that’s what the fans wanted to see. They wanted to see JP Pietersen perform, they don’t want to know about him not being able to complete a proper pre-season. If you don’t play well one weekend, they want the next guy to come in. That’s what being a rugby player is all about, performing week in and week out. Excuses like I’m injured or I’ve got a stiff back or something just don’t cut it.
You spent some time playing overseas and were also involved in the 2015 World Cup. What were those periods like for you as a more experienced player, about what works and what doesn’t?
When I went overseas, I wanted to explore a different style of coaching and the different ways of how people think about rugby. When I left in 2016, the Sharks were in a good place. But I had been doing the same thing over and over, and I needed something different; not to get the fire going but to take my game to the next level. I was fortunate enough to go to Panasonic in Japan, where I played with Berrick Barnes and was coached by Robbie Deans. And just to see the way they think about rugby was an experience. After that I went to England to play for the Leicester Tigers and another Kiwi, Aaron Mauger, was my coach. After that I was at Toulon and the French are just so laid-back and yet so passionate. For me it was an awesome experience to go around the world and to play with such amazing guys from all over the globe. To go into that last World Cup, I hadn’t really thought about it, but after we were knocked out I knew that was my last game for the Springboks. I felt it was time to step away and make way for the next generation to come in. I was open to the idea of helping the new coach if needed. As I matured through the years, I learned to know my role as a player and to always be open to new ideas.
Who were the players who were most helpful to you?
There were quite a few and the nice thing about it was we were just a group of youngsters, who had all started together for the Springboks. Ruan Pienaar was there, Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira, Frans Steyn. We all started that journey together playing for the Sharks and then the Springboks. We’ve just always been together as a group. John Smit played a massive role in all our careers because he mentored and led us at the Sharks and the Boks. To play under a captain like him, doesn’t come around often and it helped us a lot. The relationship was always open; it wasn’t like he’s the captain and ordered us around. We used to joke around and have a go at each other, but that respect was always there. But he’d also call us out and challenge us and tell us straight in the face to wake up and focus. We always knew it came from a good place. So John was massive for me as a youngster.
What led you into your junior coaching role at the Sharks?
I’ve been crazy about rugby from a young age; I had never doubted that I’ll be involved in rugby. So my love for the game was always there. I’ll take this adventure as U20 assistant coach as it comes. For me it’s about learning and developing as a coach and the advantage I have is that I played for a long time and I can share the experience I have with the youngsters and prepare them about what to expect when they move up to senior level. My main goal as a coach is to prepare the younger players for whatever gets thrown at them when they make the step up. You never know what challenges and curveballs rugby will give them or even which teams they will end up playing for. I want them to enjoy their junior rugby but to be ready for whenever a senior coach calls on them and to embrace the challenges that come with that. Who knows, maybe I can be someone who had a hand in the career of future Springbok. And that would be the ultimate achievement for me as a coach.