RYAN VREDE writes the apathy extended to the mediocre JP Pietersen needs to end.
Pietersen is a better player than his form reflects. Far better. He was an integral part of the Springboks’ World Cup campaign in France four years ago, but has looked a shadow of that player.
He has undoubtedly benefited from the media’s intense focus on Bryan Habana’s struggles. Habana, far more prolific at his peak, is held to a higher standard because he scaled higher heights. That shouldn’t mitigated Pietersen, who needs to be assessed primarily in his key performance area – try scoring.
Pietersen hasn’t scored in four Tests. His last trip across the whitewash came in August 2010 against Australia at Loftus. Before that he went try-less for eight Tests. His strike-rate of a try every three Tests is aided by him scoring 7 in his first 16. Since 2008 he was scored 5 in 23, two of those against a weak Argentina side in 2008.
He caught former Springbok coach Jake White’s eye in 2006 as a 19-year-old. His deceptive pace, solid fundamental skill set, appreciable vision and industry assisting in his rise to the top of the 2007 Super Rugby’s try-scorers charts (12). There were glimpses of those qualities for the Sharks in Super Rugby this year, suggesting the injuries that have plagued him in recent years were not inhibiting him in any way.
However, against Wales in Wellington on Sunday he lacked any discernible interest and posed no attacking threat, although it would be remiss not to note that the Springboks’ pragmatic tactics have contributed to his struggles. But to watch Pietersen live is to more fully understand why he has been a non-factor at Test level for an extended spell. For all his chronic shortcomings, a lack of effort is not a charge that can be levelled at Habana. He drifts into unorthodox positions in search of scoring opportunities and is unfailingly enthusiastic. Pietersen is lethargic, preferring to be serviced.
This was not always the case and indeed when he has been invested in matches for the Sharks and Springboks he looks a world-class wing. Yet he seems to flirt with excellence, when, after four Super Rugby campaigns, and on the brink of his 40th Test, he should be intimately acquainted with it.
Pietersen is only 25, three years Habana’s junior. It is unlikely that he is a spent force, but he is en route to that destination if intervention isn’t forthcoming. Part of that requires introspection, but he needs to be galvanised and challenged, not cuddled in the manner the Springboks’ selectors are by endorsing his mediocrity through ongoing selection. Hope of a return to form can only be a justifiable reason for selection for so long before brutal honesty is needed in an assessment. If the selectors were honest they would have no watertight argument for his retention.
He must be rattled out of the comfort zone he finds himself in with the Springboks. There are superior options available to the selectors, the most notable of those being Francios Hougaard and Gio Aplon. The heat needs to be turned up on an ice cold Pietersen.
By Ryan Vrede, in Wellington