An out of shape, demotivated JP Pietersen failed to score a single try in last year’s Super 14. The Sharks winger speaks candidly about that nightmare period and how he got his mojo back.
There are a few things sports writers never expect to hear at a press conference or when interviewing a world-class sportsman, writes Gavin Rich. Topping the list would be something like: ‘I was just out of my depth, not up to it. This level of sport is beyond me, I am not good enough for it.’ Not far behind, though, would be ‘I was fat and I was lazy’.
OK, these aren’t quite the words JP Pietersen uses to describe his alarming loss of form during the early stages of last year – a slump that continued right through the Super 14 season up until the start of the Tri-Nations – but he comes pretty close to it, and in essence, what he says means the same thing.
‘It was just a horrible time for me,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I felt heavy and I felt like I was unable to get myself into the positions where I could make a contribution on attack. It was all down to attitude and the hangover after the World Cup. The motivation just wasn’t there as it had been the year before.’
After hearing this, I feel like phoning Sharks assistant coach Grant Bashford, who I had spoken to shortly before Pietersen. Bashford had said pretty much the same thing, but had asked me to put it in polite terms. However, ‘Bashie’ needn’t have worried, because it seems that part of the maturation that Pietersen has undergone over the past year has included the introduction of self-effacing honesty.
Before we continue, we need to remind ourselves that Pietersen, although it feels as though he has been around on the local rugby circuit forever, only turns 23 in July. That means he was only 21 – and only just 21 at that – when he was part of the Springbok team that won the World Cup in October 2007.
Winning the World Cup is a helluva thing for any player, and you simply cannot beat it in terms of achievement. Many players either retire after winning it, or are simply never able to climb the psychological mountain again. So when a player wins it at the age of 21 – at such an embryonic stage of his rugby life – it is understandable that it has a massive impact on his attitude.
Pietersen is now back at the top of his game having scored six tries in the Sharks’ first seven Super 14 matches of 2009. That is more in keeping with his rich vein of try-scoring form from 2007 when he was the top try-scorer in the competition with 12.
Pietersen attributes this turnaround to the actions of two coaches last year, as well as the conversations he had with them.
‘I got dropped for the game against the Highlanders during the overseas tour, which was a massive wake-up call for me,’ he recalls. ‘[Then-Sharks coach] Dick Muir sat me down and told me exactly what he wanted from me. He told me he sympathised with me as he had also been where I was during his playing career. He said he knew what it was like when in the season after a massive achievement you feel you are in a comfort zone and lose a bit of your motivation.
‘I told him I had no excuses for my poor form, that I just felt I couldn’t get to the points I needed to be any more. I told him that I felt heavy and was tired in the games. Dick said I needed to change my attitude, but already just by dropping me he had inspired me to make a change.
‘The turnaround started to happen quite quickly after that. However, while I thought I had a good game in the following match against the Brumbies, and I felt better about myself even though we lost, I still went on to finish the competition without a single try to my name.’
For a hooker, prop, scrumhalf, flyhalf or even a centre, that last point would not have been particularly significant. But it was for Pietersen, considering his position.
‘Playing on the wing is a bit like being the striker in soccer. You are the guy who is expected to score. And as I knew from the previous season, scoring tries is a massive boost for your confidence. When I didn’t score it had a negative impact on my game. You start wondering where the next try is going to come from and you feel you are letting your team-mates down.’
The try, when it did eventually come, took place in one of the more memorable Springbok Tests of 2008. After missing out in the home games against Wales and Italy, Pietersen was back in the mix for the Tri-Nations, and he broke his long try-scoring drought in the first half of the epic win over the All Blacks in Dunedin.
‘[Springbok coach] Peter de Villiers also played a big role in getting my mind right by initially leaving me out of the Bok squad,’ says Pietersen. ‘That was another big wake-up call. Peter sat me down and told me to think about where I was going, what I was doing, what I wanted to do with my rugby career. He told me to get away from the game for a while, to refresh my mind. I did that, and when I returned, I felt that I was rejuvenated and had rediscovered my motivation.
‘Obviously the fact that I had not been scoring any tries still bugged me quite a bit, so it was good to get one in Dunedin. It released some of the pressure I was feeling. I felt like everyone’s eyes were on me, waiting for me to score again. It was weird, though … it was almost like that try against the All Blacks was a present from God, because it came on my birthday. It was perfect timing.’
You could say then that Pietersen has not made a false step since turning 22, for he rapidly returned to his best form during the remainder of the Tri-Nations, and played a key role for the Sharks as they won the Currie Cup for the first time since 1996, under the coaching of new mentor John Plumtree.Among the people he impressed most was Bashford, who reckons Pietersen has now developed into the world-class product he was always going to be.
‘It was clear to us when he came back from the World Cup that he wasn’t in the right frame of mind, and dropping him for the Highlanders game was a significant moment in getting his attitude right,’ says Bashford. ‘Since then he has changed so much. He was really sharp in the Currie Cup after coming back from the Boks – it was like he was a completely different player. I think he had put on a bit of weight after the World Cup, but in the Currie Cup he was in superb condition and he was really hungry, constantly looking for extra work. He has carried that form and attitude into this year’s Super 14, and the results show it.’
Bashford and his fellow Sharks coaches have been working hard on making Pietersen a better all-round player, and he reckons they are succeeding.
‘JP has always been an exciting runner, but I don’t think people look at him anymore as just a gangly runner who can do only one thing. Defensively he has always been awesome, and remains so, but we have been working hard on improving his kicking game, particularly his long kicking game. In some of his earlier matches – such as the one where we beat the Chiefs in Hamilton – you could see how much improvement there has been to the quality of his kicking, as well as his chipping and chasing.’
Looking back at the changes, Pietersen, who also appears to have grown as a communicator since he was first interviewed at a much earlier stage of his rugby career, reverts to that self-effacing honesty.
‘It’s all down to an attitude change. After the World Cup I needed to reset my goals, I needed to grow up and become an adult. The past year or so has seen me grow both as a player and as a person, and I feel I know a helluva lot more than I did when I was 21 and had just won the World Cup.
‘What I know is that for any player to remain at the top of his sport there can be no place for any comfort zone, no place for you to feel that you have done it all already. I enjoy playing for the Sharks and I enjoy playing in the Super 14. It’s been good to feel that confidence come back and to feel that I have worked for any success that comes my way.’
By Gavin Rich
– This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine.