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