Le­ices­ter’s new Tiger rep­re­sents a shrewd bit of busi­ness, says Owain Jones

Rugby World - - Spotlight On -

HILE HIS wing part­ner Bryan Ha­bana has al­ways boasted a higher pro­file, Jon-Paul Roger Pi­etersen – the JPR ini­tials are a homage to the cel­e­brated Welsh full-back – has carved a rep­u­ta­tion as a player of the high­est cal­i­bre. A World Cup win­ners’ medal, a Lions se­ries win, 69 caps and 24 Test tries stands up to the clos­est of scru­tiny, so when the Welford Road faith­ful heard that the long-time Shark had plumped for the East Mid­lands, there was a fris­son of ex­cite­ment.

Speak­ing to Pi­etersen, days af­ter he was held aloft by his Sharks team-mates and car­ried off the field af­ter 11 years’ ser­vice, it’s clear the ap­pre­ci­a­tion is mu­tual.

“Of course it was emo­tional to fin­ish with the Sharks at Kings Park, but I’m also ex­cited about a new ad­ven­ture in Le­ices­ter. I was in tears, which Wil­lie le Roux and Pat Lam­bie laughed about, but Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira was more emo­tional. We started out to­gether but I’ve told him I’ll put him up when he comes to the UK,” he laughs.

As he re­laxes on a beau­ti­ful day in Dur­ban, you won­der if Richard Cock­er­ill told him about the weather be­fore he signed. “Oh, I’ve been in Ja­pan when it snowed,” he says in mock in­dig­na­tion. “I’m sure the guys will laugh at me with ten lay­ers on but I’ll get used to it. I’ll even try a pint and a pie at Welford Road. I’m pretty open-minded!”

The seeds for his for­eign so­journ were sown at RWC 2015, af­ter South Africa went out in the semi-fi­nals. “I was look­ing at France but my wife made the de­ci­sion that it would be eas­ier in Eng­land, be­cause she didn’t want to bat­tle with learn­ing a new lan­guage af­ter do­ing that in Ja­pan for my stint at Pana­sonic Wild Knights.”

When word got out, there were plenty of clubs cov­et­ing his sig­na­ture. “Ini­tially we were speak­ing to Sara­cens and a few oth­ers, but out of the blue I was told Le­ices­ter were af­ter an out­side back. I had a chat with Richard (Cock­er­ill) and Aaron (Mauger) and the con­ver­sa­tion went well. I liked their vi­sion for the Tigers, it tal­lied with what I wanted to achieve. They made me feel wanted.”

Pi­etersen has done ex­ten­sive home­work on his new club, which went through some­thing of a meta­mor­pho­sis last sea­son, emerg­ing as an of­fen­sive, of­fload­ing team, com­ple­mented by the likes of Peter Betham and Telusa Veainu. “I watched the Tigers a cou­ple of times in the Premier­ship and was im­pressed. They like to work the

Wball out wide, which suits me. I like to play with ball in hand and get in­volved, so with Matt Toomua com­ing and play­ers like Ben Youngs and Manu Tuilagi al­ready there, I’m hop­ing I can con­trib­ute to a suc­cess­ful sea­son.”

The Spring­bok also sought the coun­sel of two coun­try­men, for­mer Tiger Jean de Vil­liers and Gary Gold, his di­rec­tor of rugby at the Sharks and keen ad­vo­cate of the Premier­ship. In fact, the Spring­bok net­work has been in over­drive.

“Gary knows the English game very well. He said Le­ices­ter fans are pas­sion­ate about their rugby and I’ll be made to feel wel­come, which means a lot.

“My wife’s best friend is mar­ried to Brad Bar­ritt, so I hope to go down to Lon­don and visit them at Sara­cens and I’m sure Schalk (Burger) will be around.”

With a 6,000-mile up­heaval to nav­i­gate, Pi­etersen is still un­sure about his in­volve­ment in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship. “I may miss the early games as I need to fo­cus on set­tling in Le­ices­ter, but if I get se­lected dur­ing the com­pe­ti­tion we’ll have a con­ver­sa­tion.”

He has few wor­ries about new head coach Al­lis­ter Coet­zee, even if the Boks had to res­cue the se­ries against Ire­land, with Pi­etersen scor­ing their only try in the de­cid­ing Test. “Al­lis­ter brings an open-minded, re­laxed cul­ture. Play­ers are en­cour­aged to speak up if they’re un­happy. For him to gain the re­spect of guys in three weeks is un­be­liev­able. Know­ing him, he’s go­ing to bring some ex­cite­ment to the Boks’ play.

“We’re in a pe­riod of tran­si­tion but there is young tal­ent com­ing through. Faf de Klerk showed his po­ten­tial against Ire­land, while El­ton Jan­tjies has been in un­be­liev­able form. Then there’s Storm­ers Pi­eter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etze­beth, who have been dom­i­nat­ing other Su­per Rugby sides.”

With the All Blacks heavy favourites in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship, Pi­etersen ac­cepts they are sans pareil right now. “Four teams in the Su­per Rugby play-offs shows how far ahead they are. All Blacks coaches and Su­per Rugby coaches seem on the same page. The gap starts in school rugby and the tran­si­tion to pro rugby, so we have to up­skill the guys more to be ready for Su­per Rugby. That’s the only way to close the gap.” Sage ad­vice and you sense Messrs Cock­er­ill and Mauger have sweet-talked a very fine

ad­di­tion to the Premier­ship.

Fam­ily “I’m very close to my folks but for­tu­nately Skype is pretty good.” Braai “Chuck­ing meat on with the boys and hav­ing a Cas­tle Lite is part of SA cul­ture.” Dur­ban “It’s a beau­ti­ful city, so laid-back. I’ll miss the Rain­bow Na­tion.”

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