Diving straight in

GAVIN MORTIMER discovers that Joe Pietersen is relishing the challenge of playing and living in France.

There are approximately 8 300km between Cape Town and Bayonne but it feels like a home from home for Joe Pietersen.

‘It’s a town on the south-west coast of France and in many ways it’s similar to what I knew back in South Africa,’ explains the former Stormers and Western Province fullback. ‘There’s the sea, the beaches and the wine. It’s a relaxed way of life and my wife and I are enjoying it.’

Pietersen, 26, married his wife, model Marzaan Kalis, in July before jetting north to France to take up a two-year contract with Bayonne, one of the less glamorous sides in the Top 14. Last season they finished 13th and avoided relegation only because Montauban went bust and were thrown out of France’s elite league. But bolstered by a raft of mid-year signings, Bayonne have started the 2010-11 season in better shape and racked up wins against the likes of Agen, Brive and Joe van Niekerk’s Toulon.

For Pietersen it’s clearly been a challenge, adapting not just to the different way of playing rugby but also the different way of living. His arrival in France coincided with the start of a series of general strikes across the country organised in protest against the government’s decision to raise the age of retirement from 60 to 62. With public transport at a standstill, refuse left uncollected and petrol stations running out of gas, France for a time resembled a country in chaos. Fortunately Pietersen is able to laugh and take it all in his stride.

‘The reason for leaving South Africa was that my wife and I decided we wanted to start our life together with a challenge, which it definitely is, especially the lifestyle and language. The way of life is totally different to what I knew in South Africa but I like it.’

The wheels of administration move slowly in France, nowhere more so than in the deep south, as Pietersen discovered when he had to wait three weeks to have his telephone and internet connection installed. And don’t even ask him about the satellite TV he’d hoped to have in time to watch Western Province in the Currie Cup final. Oh well, c’est la vie, as the French would say.

Pietersen has signed with Bayonne for two years and though it might be a bit premature to draw comparisons between French rugby and the South African brand, he’s already seen a couple of differences.

‘I don’t think French rugby is any more physical than South African rugby,’ he says. ‘It’s certainly more of a forwards’ game here but also probably slower and less attacking.

‘In South Africa the game is definitely more structured. Teams plan ahead for three or four phases whereas in France you plan for one phase and then play off the cuff, that famous “champagne rugby”, where the French will just try something. Sometimes it comes off and sometimes it doesn’t but it makes for a less structured and disciplined approach than back home.’

Pietersen joined Bayonne as a fullback but so far this season he’s also played on the wing and at flyhalf, a versatility that some might argue hampered his progression at Western Province in his formative years.

‘Of course I prefer fullback but I’m used to playing in different positions. I played a lot of rugby on the wing in South Africa and I’ve no problem helping out where I’m required, though I draw the line at getting involved with the forwards!

‘In the past couple of years at the Stormers and WP I played at fullback which allowed me to really focus on the positional requirements, but when I joined Bayonne I didn’t tell them  that I would only play fullback. One of the things about the French season is its length [from August to June] so it’s natural that some games you play out of position and other games you sit on the bench.’

One of Pietersen’s new team-mates is former Pumas centre Sam Gerber, while second row Rob Linde is also on the books of Bayonne, a player Pietersen knew from his early days at Newlands.

‘Rob was at WP in my first season in 2004 so it’s been good to catch up,’ he explains. ‘I think that when a player moves overseas it’s often harder for his partner to adjust to the new life so in that respect it’s been great that my wife can spend time with the wives of Rob and Sam.’

Pietersen and his wife are keen surfers, as is another of his team-mates, the former All Blacks lock Troy Flavell, and the pair head out into the Atlantic whenever they can.

But it isn’t all surf and sun in Bayonne. That stretch of the Atlantic coastline is notorious for its seasonal storms and one such tempest descended on the town the same October day as English club Harlequins arrived to play their European Challenge Cup pool match. One British newspaper described the conditions as ‘farcical’ as rain and wind lashed the Stade Jean-Dauger and Pietersen still shivers at the memory weeks later.

‘I’ve played in a few rainy matches in Cape Town but nothing compared to that day,’ he says with a laugh. ‘I was playing on the wing and froze my butt off. I think the ball came my way once in the second half when Harlequins kicked it in my direction. Unfortunately my hands were so frozen I couldn’t pick it up.’

What Pietersen modestly neglects to mention is his contribution to Bayonne’s 16-12 win, where he dotted down for a well-finished try in the first half that set the French side on course for victory.

Pietersen’s eye for the tryline, not to mention his goal-kicking ability and reliability under the high ball, were just some of the reasons why many in South Africa were surprised when he was overlooked for the  Springboks’ tour to Europe in November 2009. Instead Peter de Villiers opted to take Lions utility back Earl Rose, one of the more head-scratching selections of his coaching tenure. Despite the snub, however, Pietersen bears no resentment towards De Villiers.

‘I don’t think there’s too much wrong with the [selection] system in South Africa,’ he says. ‘After all, we’re world champions so we must be doing something right. Every player wants to play for the Boks and if that doesn’t happen then there’s a tendency to say “I was overlooked”. I don’t think I was overlooked.

I was competing against some great players like Frans Steyn and Zane Kirchner and I think I pushed them as hard as I could but I didn’t get selected.’

Pietersen is similarly philosophical when asked if he regrets the timing of his move to France. After South Africa’s poor showing in the Tri-Nations might not De Villiers have now called on him for the 2010 tour to Europe had he been available?

‘Ifs and buts won’t get me anywhere in life,’ says Pietersen. ‘I’m like a little boy when it comes to the Boks. I dream of playing for them one day and I’ll only be 28 when my contract with Bayonne expires. So I’m going to keep working, keep pushing hard and keep improving my game while I’m in France. Who knows what will happen in the future.’

Despite a difficult year for the national side, Pietersen feels that the Springboks will be in good shape to defend their title at next year’s World Cup.

‘The coaches came in for a lot criticism in the Tri-Nations this year but what we saw was a lot of young guys given the chance to prove themselves and the same thing too on the tour to Europe,’ he explains. ‘Sometimes people need to step back, stop criticising the coaches and look at the bigger picture, which in this case is the World Cup. If you look back to 2006 the Boks struggled in the Tri-Nations and then came good in the World Cup the following year and I think we’re getting a good blend of youth and experience ahead of next year’s tournament.’

Having played sevens for South Africa Pietersen isn’t in a position to go down the same route as Pieter de Villiers and Brian Liebenberg and pull on the blue jersey of his adopted country, not that he would if he could. ‘No, I’m a Bok boy at heart,’ he replies emphatically when asked if he would play for France if the eligibility rules were changed.

A Bok boy but also a WP boy, and no one was more pleased with their run to the Currie Cup final than Pietersen.

‘I wasn’t really surprised at how well they did in the tournament; you could see it coming with the way the Stormers played in the Super 14. I sent Allister Coetzee an e-mail just before the Currie Cup final to wish the boys well and though I missed being part of the day I was lucky enough to play for the Stormers in the Super 14 final and that was unforgettable. But rugby is all about new challenges and different priorities and that’s why I came to France.’

Some of those challenges are more demanding than others, and while Pietersen is having no trouble adjusting to the rugby and administrative habits of the French, their temperament still leaves him bemused.

‘Before I arrived here I’d heard stories of the violence in French rugby but it’s not really like that at Top 14 level,’ he says with a laugh. ‘But French people in general are definitely more emotional than the rest of the world, you just need to see them drive to have proof of that!’

– This article first appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine.

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