Pietersen’s strong start

Former Stormers fullback Joe Pietersen made an instant impact at flyhalf for the Cheetahs, writes BRENTON CHELIN.

With so many faces heading in the opposite direction, Joe Pietersen’s arrival in Bloemfontein was somewhat unheralded. Compared to names like Johan Goosen, Adriaan Strauss and Trevor Nyakane, Pietersen’s signature, on the surface, was underwhelming. With Springbok fullback Willie le Roux already in their squad, along with the promising Clayton Blommetjies, it seemed a bit peculiar.

However, after the early rounds of Super Rugby, and the victories over the Sharks and Blues, the move looks a shrewd one, for franchise and player. Pietersen has slotted seamlessly into the flyhalf berth vacated by Goosen and the injured Elgar Watts, looking like a player to the manor born. He displayed a calm authority from the pivot position against the Sharks, and was typically accurate from the kicking tee, landing five of his six kicks at goal for a 13-point haul. It was a promising return.

What was most surprising was the Cheetahs’ decision to forego the usual ball-in-hand exuberance in favour of a more pragmatic approach. They were calm and methodical in their dismantling of one of the favourites for the Super Rugby title, while Pietersen’s ability to launch contestable kicks and find the corners was key to their success.

Cheetahs coach Naka Drotské spent much of the Currie Cup season abroad with the intention of developing his team’s game plan. While the main focus was their defensive structures, the tactical progression on display against the Sharks and Blues was noticeable.

‘Joe has a very good strike rate and his kicking from hand was accurate,’ said Drotské in Durban after that first victory. ‘We have what we call zone-two kicking – launching contestable kicks  from our own half – which is something we’ve worked on. It wasn’t only Joe, though; I believe Willie le Roux has also improved this aspect of his game over the past 18 months.

‘Joe made a huge difference for us, not only because of his kicking but because he has a lot of experience, and with so many youngsters in our team, he is a leader.’

Pietersen, who coolly slotted a 79th-minute match-winning penalty against the Blues, admits he’s found it easy to settle into the relaxed environment in Bloemfontein after spending the past few years bouncing between Cape Town and France.

‘After my club [Biarritz] were relegated, the option was to find another club in France or come back to South Africa for the Super Rugby season. I looked around, and the Cheetahs provided a different option, a different challenge. I wasn’t going to come here and compete with the Springbok fullback, so when they told me I’d primarily be considered for the flyhalf spot, it was something that interested me.

‘There has been some adjustment, like learning the role of a 10 during pre-season, but it’s a lot easier when you’re able to communicate with your teammates. Having someone like Sarel Pretorius on my inside has also really helped. He’s very experienced at this level and knows the structures well, having been at the Cheetahs for a long time.’

In a side that is short on experience, that 9-10 axis has over 150 Super Rugby caps between them. Drotské makes mention of Pietersen’s experience as one of the major reasons behind his signature. With Watts on the injured list for the first half of the season and Willie du Plessis still finding his feet at Super Rugby level, Pietersen’s role becomes even more crucial.

‘He’s not a big talker, but when he does talk, people tend to listen,’ says the coach. ‘He shows a lot of calmness on the field and that has spilled over to the rest of the team. It’s perhaps something we’ve lacked in recent seasons.’

Flyhalves, more than any other position, have the tendency to shape their team’s destiny. Last season the Cheetahs’ erratic performances mirrored those of Goosen’s, and their form suffered as a result. Pietersen may not possess the mercurial talent of the youngster, but he will provide the consistency that was lacking in 2014.

‘I’m not Johan Goosen. We’re very different players,’ says Pietersen. ‘Where he likes to take the ball to the line, I’m more likely to put someone into a gap or use my boot to play field position. You need to take a more balanced approach to things. If you’re just going to run the ball, or just kick, you’re going to come up short. It’s about finding that happy medium.’

Pietersen managed that balancing act superbly against the Sharks and Blues. He is the perfect foil to the attacking talent of Le Roux, with both able to move into first receiver or revert to fullback. It is a tactic we may see more of as the season progresses. The Cheetahs have also benefited from Le Roux’s improved tactical-kicking game, where his left boot provides further options on attack and defence. Such variation means the Cheetahs have lost none of their unpredictability, and were one of only three teams to notch up a bonus point on the opening weekend of Super Rugby.

‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer,’ says Pietersen. ‘It was a good performance against the Sharks, but that is behind us. We’re looking forward to the season ahead, and hopefully we can get back to where we were in 2013 [when the Cheetahs made the play-offs].’

Lofty goals for a side that finished last season at the foot of the South African conference with just four wins. However, after the summer clearout, a winning start is nothing to shirk at. And with Pietersen calling the shots and kicking the points, there may just be a few more yet.

– This article first appeared in the April 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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