Jasper Wiese’s progression from unheralded grafter to Springbok contender for the Lions series, all within the space of a year, speaks volumes for his character, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Towards the end of last year, when Wiese packed his bags for England – trading his familiar Cheetahs colours for the green, white and red of the Leicester Tigers – there were not all that many rugby followers who would have known his name.
In a superbly crafted piece for the Telegraph, UK-based writer Charles Richardson summed it up in so many words:
‘This time last year, in international rugby, Jasper Wiese was a nobody. The uncapped Leicester No 8 had made fewer than 15 appearances for South African Pro14 franchise Cheetahs, and was so far off the Springboks’ radar that the authorities debated sending a search party. The 25-year-old was stuttering, destined to be defined as a journeyman, desperate for a catalyst to unleash the beast lurking within.’
As fate would have it, a change of environment, a new challenge and a different set of circumstances have unequivocally brought out the best in Wiese.
In the 2020-21 Challenge Cup, he emerged as the runaway leader in terms of carries and offloads, while he has also established himself as one of the Premiership’s most dynamic ball-carrying No 8s.
The way he tucks the ball under one arm and powers into contact is reminiscent of another cavalier South African loose forward, Schalk Burger, who displayed a similar lack of concern for personal well-being whenever he hit his ball-carrying stride.
And now, Wiese is on the cusp of realising his Springbok dream.
On Friday, Springbok head honchos Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber held a virtual media briefing to provide updates on the squad’s preparations, but made it clear from the outset that they couldn’t discuss selections or talk about specific individuals at this point.
Yet, when Erasmus was chatting about the value of being able to call up a number of overseas-based players who have been impressive in northern-hemisphere competitions, he couldn’t help but mention Wiese.
Who can blame him?
Wiese, after all, is another archetypical loose forward who fits the mould of a ‘warrior’, which is the buzz word for what the Bok coaches want to see in players who are involved in the national set-up.
This is about players who are as strong mentally as they are tough physically.
Wiese, since moving to Leicester, is a new and improved version of himself. Introspection and a ‘clean slate’ in England have allowed him to appreciate that he was playing within himself while in South Africa.
But the 25-year-old has now broken through what he might have previously thought was his ‘ceiling’.
‘Since leaving school, it has always been about the Cheetahs – I was there for six, seven years, so eventually you limit yourself to, “If I only play for the Cheetahs it would be fine”,’ he told Telegraph Sport.
‘That’s where I made a mistake; almost limiting myself to not be the best player that I could be. I had a fire in me to start a new challenge and to prove some people wrong who had doubted me.’
‘Sometimes I try to figure out why I’m getting a spark now: why didn’t I do this back in South Africa?’, he added. ‘It is a bit surreal.’
Indeed, as Wiese is set to be unveiled as a member of the extended Springbok squad next weekend, that word ‘surreal’ is likely to come to mind once again.
A year ago, a stop-start career was spluttering away in an unknown direction.
Since then, Wiese has unleashed the ‘beast’.
And, while this is just the start, there will be good reason for celebration in the Wiese household should he get the opportunity to trade the green jersey of Leicester for that of the Springboks.