Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, veteran wing JP PIETERSEN talks about inking for Leicester Tigers, the Springboks’ growing pains, and looks ahead to South Africa’s clash with New Zealand on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: You signed a three-year deal with Leicester Tigers. What motivated your move?
JP Pietersen: I had been playing in South Africa for 11 years and the opportunity to ply my trade overseas came at the right time for me. I’m now 30 years old and feel that I have done my duty for South African rugby. I am excited to enjoy a different experience up north, and everyone at the club is helping me settle in to my new surroundings. I have played two matches so far this season, and I’m getting used to the club’s playing philosophy. All around the world, rugby doesn’t change much, however, it’s stimulating to work with coaches from different nations in Richard Cockerill, Geordan Murphy and Aaron Mauger. The English, Irish and New Zealand coaching mix is unique and playing alongside current England internationals is something which is outside the box for me. It’s an ideal environment to test yourself in as a player and I’m looking forward to a successful spell in the UK.
Sport24 asked: You’ve played 69 Tests since 2006. Do you still want to play for the Springboks?
JP Pietersen: For sure. When I left the country I never said that I was retiring from Springbok rugby. The desire to play for my country is still there. I have always been proud to represent our rainbow nation and I have loved playing in front of my home supporters and singing our national anthem. I would very much like to add to my 69 Test caps. However, at the moment, I have commitments at Leicester Tigers. Allister Coetzee said to me: “Play well for your club and, if you do so, I will consider picking you for South Africa.” My main focus now is to stay fit and play well for Leicester Tigers and maybe the end-of-year tour will mark my return to the national side if I earn a call-up. My love for the Springbok jersey is still strong and hopefully I will represent South Africa again in the near future.
Sport24 asked: What’s your take on the growing pains the Springboks are currently experiencing?
JP Pietersen: It has been tough watching from the outside, but it’s even tougher for the players and coaching staff involved. We need to understand that it’s a new team, with a new coach at the helm. From my side, I would urge the South African rugby public to be patient and really back Allister, his coaching staff and the players. There is so much talent in South Africa that we will get better, but the truth is that it will take time. South Africans don’t necessarily understand losing because we are a competitive nation and have always possessed a strong rugby team. We have actually been spoilt in the last 10 years by the unbelievable players who have been available to the Springboks. They made history for Springbok rugby and left a legacy, which is why they are called legends. I can see future legends playing in the current Springbok side, but their development won’t happen overnight. Nobody in South Africa is happy with losing Test matches, but how do you satisfy people? Some people suggest that the Springboks are too conservative, kick every ball away and play boring rugby. And, when the Springboks run the ball more, they are heavily criticized for conceding turn-overs, penalties and tries. Within South African rugby, it’s not possible to please everybody all of the time. Personally, I would rather play boring, winning rugby than play expansively and lose Test matches.
Sport24 asked: The honeymoon period has ended for Coetzee. How will he find the right blend?
JP Pietersen: Coaching the Springboks is a difficult job, but I believe Allister will get the balance right. In my eyes, Allister is the right man for the job and people must also remember that he was only appointed shortly before the June Test series against Ireland. As a result, he never actually had time to work with the players in camp and has been rushed. A two or three week camp is crucial in order for players to understand what the principles are in terms of game plan. As players, you can’t just walk into the team and understand the game plan right from the outset. You have to develop a feel for the players next to you. We were blessed with players who played together for the last ten years and they could almost walk into the team and perform because there was an environment in which players knew exactly what to do and they were connected with each other on the field. However, we now have new combinations that will take time to gel and there has also been talk about the Lions’ game plan and whether it conflicts with the Springboks’. It will take time for the Boks to develop the correct game plan, but I’m positive that we have the right coaching staff in place. The players now need to play together consistently in order to gain both confidence and a mutual understanding.
Sport24 asked: Elton Jantjies has drawn some criticism. Does he need to be backed not bashed?
JP Pietersen: We definitely need to back Elton. His goal-kicking hasn’t been on par of late, but there is no denying that he has so much talent. In my opinion, he is actually a freak of nature. Elton has an excellent eye for the gap and if he takes the ball nice and flat and brings his forwards into the game, the Springboks will prosper. However, the 9-10-12 axis must work together as unit and assist each other because it’s not just one man’s job to do everything on the field. The men outside No 10 need to communicate with their flyhalf to point out where the gaps are. While there are similarities between Elton and his former mentor, Carlos Spencer, I’d opt for Jantjies ahead of Spencer in my first XV because the former has an effective kicking and running game and is more of an all-rounder.
Sport24 asked: The All Blacks host the Springboks on Saturday. Your thoughts ahead of the Test?
JP Pietersen: A Springbok is always at his most dangerous when his back is against the wall. South Africa are going into the encounter as underdogs and very few people are giving them a chance of victory. It may allow them to express themselves and stop worrying about whatever the press or the public have to say. As a Springbok, the clash with the All Blacks is the ultimate game you want to play because you can’t get better than a clash between two historical rivals. The All Blacks are a very effective outfit, are in a rich vein of form and it will take a massive team performance from the Springboks in order to beat the All Blacks. You can devise any game plan under the sun against the All Blacks, but if you don’t take your opportunities and put them under pressure, you are never going to win the contest. The Boks boast big forwards and if they get good line-out drives, scrum well and put them under pressure with their kick-chase game, they will trouble the home side. However, if the visitors prove sloppy, deliver loose passes, play behind their forwards, commit knock-ons and play in the wrong areas of the field, the All Blacks will punish them because they have sufficient ammunition within their forward pack and backline. The Springboks definitely need to be on song defensively and must fight that extra fight. What you normally do on defence is simply not enough against the All Blacks because they always seem to find another gear which they can slip into. As a player, you must push yourself to the limit and keep going even if you feel fatigued during the game.
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