Unheralded former Cheetahs loose forward Jasper Wiese has found the form of his life in England, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Five years ago, Jasper Wiese was at a crossroads in his life. There were rumours that the cash-strapped Cheetahs might not have the resources to offer him a new contract.
Wiese, then 21, considered hanging up his boots. When he called home for advice, his father told him that he was welcome to return to the Northern Cape and to take up a job on the family farm.
Fortunately, the Cheetahs managed to retain Wiese’s services and he decided to stay in the game. Five years later, and he’s making waves for Leicester as one of the most powerful carriers in the Premiership.
‘I’m lucky that the Cheetahs decided to keep me on,’ he says. ‘From that point onwards, I told myself that I was going to make every second count. I was committed to realising my dream of playing rugby. I would do whatever it took to succeed, and I wouldn’t make the mistake of looking too far into the future.’
Wiese’s fortitude was tested during a turbulent time for the Cheetahs franchise. The Bloemfontein-based side was cut from the Super Rugby roster in 2017, and then from the Pro Rugby tournament in 2020. As the Covid-19 pandemic brought rugby around the world to a halt, Wiese finalised a move to the Leicester Tigers.
Wiese arrived in November and was immediately placed in quarantine. Three days before the mandatory two-week stint expired, he came into contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19. As a result, he was forced to spend a further two-week period in quarantine.
‘It was frustrating, because I was so keen to get started at Leicester,’ he says. ‘When I finally got out of quarantine, I thought I would have some time to settle at the club and familiarise myself with the systems.’
Life would throw him another curve ball. Leicester coach Steve Borthwick called him shortly after he had been released from quarantine. The Tigers were preparing for a match against Gloucester three days later. Would Wiese be available to start?
‘I was shocked. I hadn’t trained and I hadn’t even had a chance to meet the other players.
‘Steve said that he backed me to make a difference. So I went down to training and I was all over the place. I made a few mistakes. Obviously I was still getting to grips with the new culture and speaking more English than I was used to.
‘But the coaches and players gave me confidence. They told me to stop overthinking everything. I went to the captain’s run the next day, and things went a little smoother. The game turned out OK.’
Wiese beat six defenders and made a total of 73m with ball in hand. That performance against Gloucester set the tone for the rest of the season. After 10 rounds of action, no player had beaten more defenders than the farm boy from the Northern Cape.
Wiese relied on more than his size – 1.9m, 110kg – to dominate the collisions and to create opportunities for those outside him. His combative attitude, and his determination to succeed, set him apart.
Wiese recalls how he was a lot smaller than his peers as a kid. His younger brother Cobus – who went on to play lock for SA U20 side, the Stormers, and Sale Sharks – eventually outgrew him in high school.
‘There’s only about 18 months between Cobus and myself. We were super competitive as kids,’ Wiese remembers. ‘My older brother Japie is eight years old than me. He was already in high school when we were in junior school. He would come home and play rugby with us, and we would try to tackle him. We had to fight for every inch.’
There weren’t enough pupils at the Wieses’ junior school to form a rugby team. Once a year, the schools in the area would come together and a tournament would be staged. The Wieses didn’t play a lot of organised rugby until they attended high school.
As followers of Super Rugby and the Currie Cup, however, they weren’t short on rugby inspiration.
‘We didn’t have a lot of live rugby in the area, so we watched a lot of it on TV. Our heroes were Juan Smith, Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen,’ he says. ‘It was never about what position they played, but about how they carried themselves on the field.
‘Juan was an absolute beast in contact. Schalk put his body on the line at every tackle. He didn’t care what happened to him. I looked up to those guys, even though I was nowhere near their size.
‘When Cobus and I were at school, we were desperate to emulate my older brother and to play for the First XV. We were quite fortunate that our school was part of the Griquas Country Districts set-up and we got a look in for the Craven Week tournament.
‘But even then, rugby didn’t seem like much of a career path,’ he adds. ‘I remember getting asked what I would like to do when I left school. I said that I wanted to be a pro rugby player. The whole class laughed at me.’
Wiese had planned to study agriculture and to follow in his father and older brother’s footsteps. Then he got an offer to play for CUT in the Varsity Shield. He enjoyed a significant growth spurt and packed on 20kg of muscle. The Cheetahs offered him a contract and brought him into their U19 set-up.
Seven years down the line, Wiese decided that the time was right for a change.
‘I thought a move to Leicester would be good for me as a person as well as a player. It was time to take things to the next level in my career and to have a change of scenery.
‘Rugby in the northern hemisphere is definitely more physical,’ he says. ‘I came from a Cheetahs environment that places an emphasis on running rugby. Now I’m expected to front up in a slower, more attritional game.
‘I’ve received a lot of encouragement from my coaches and teammates, and have started to build some confidence. It’s still a process – I’m not happy with where I am now. I will never stop trying to improve.’
Some might say that his personal philosophy has improved his chances of success in such an unforgivingly physical environment.
‘When you find yourself in that one-on-one situation, it’s always personal,’ he says. ‘Either your opponent is going to run you over, or you are going to hit him back.
‘I get really fired up about that. I know there’s a lot more to rugby than collisions, and I know that it’s not all about me – it’s about the whole team. That said, I’ve always relished that particular challenge.’
Leicester would have finished last on the Premiership log last year if not for the automatic relegation of Saracens, who were docked points after breaching the salary cap. This season, however, the Tigers have shown a remarkable improvement. Wiese has been one of the standouts.
‘It’s a team stacked with world-class players. I’ve learned a lot playing alongside guys like Tom Youngs, our team captain. He inspires me with his attitude. In many ways, he’s like Schalk Burger. He’s fearless in contact. I draw on that energy and I do the best I can to take the team forward.
‘We have other Saffas at our club like Cyle Brink, Luan de Bruin, Hanro Liebenberg, Jaco Taute and Kobus van Wyk. I’d played against most of them before, but hadn’t spent much time with them socially until I got to Leicester.
‘They helped me adapt, because I was a bit lost when I first arrived. Speaking English all the time has been a challenge. I was a bit nervous about it when I came across, and I think I’m lucky that everyone at the club and even the people of Leicester have been so supportive.’
Wiese has certainly made an impression in the Premiership. Indeed, his Man of the Match performances for Leicester have not gone unnoticed in South Africa. How long will it be before he is spoken about as a Springbok prospect?
‘I’m not thinking too far ahead. I’m living in the moment. If I’m chasing something, it’s the opportunity to represent Leicester on a regular basis. If I’ve learned anything over the course of my career, it’s that you can’t afford to look too far ahead.
‘I know your chances of making the Bok side take a hit when you move overseas. That’s the risk you take when you leave South Africa. But it can be done,’ he adds.
‘If I play hard enough, I will give myself a chance of realising that dream. It’s still very much on my mind.’