RYAN VREDE, in Dublin, writes JP Pietersen believes he has yet to touch the ceiling of his potential.
Pietersen initially struggled to impose himself as a midfielder for the Sharks in Super Rugby but burned white hot when shifted back to wing. Cruelly a fractured thumb sidelined him for the entire Rugby Championship, just as head coach Heyneke Meyer was preparing to assemble a backline he felt could provide stern examinations of the southern hemisphere’s best.
The Springboks sorely missed Pietersen’s experience game-breaking ability, with Bryan Habana emerging as the only standout performer in a decidedly impotent back division.
The Habana-Pietersen reunion must wait, the former absent from the tour due to a knee injury sustained in the Currie Cup final. However, the Springboks will benefit from Pietersen’s drive and physicality as well as his mental refreshment that was a by-product of his layoff. He offered an ominous warning to future opponents.
‘I had a good 2007, but this was one of my best years. As I mature I think I can only get better from here,’ Pietersen said. ‘By maturity I mean the ability to think on my feet, where as a youngster I expected things to come my way. I’ve learned what my strong and weak points are. My work rate has improved, that’s the main thing.’
In saying that Pietersen addressed criticism he faced for his seeming unwillingness to engineer opportunities for himself. Habana, even in his biggest slumps in form, could never be accused of a lack of industry. Pietersen, conversely, grew in anonymity the deeper his struggles became.
‘I’ve heard that a lot over the last few years – I can’t concentrate for 80 minutes. But I’m older now and probably a little wiser. It’s been the case in the past but I’ve overcome that challenge,’ he said.
Assistant coach Ricardo Loubscher praised Pietersen for an attitude of professionalism, a quality that he hasn’t always possessed, and one that came through again when asked if he considered himself a midfielder or wing.
‘I’m a team man and wherever the coach plays me I’m happy. We all know that my preferred position is wing. But whatever he decides I’m happy with.’
The question was a pertinent one because this website has it on excellent authority that Meyer would have played Pietersen at outside centre had Habana not been injured. He still sees a future for Pietersen in the position and indeed has already cast his mind to utilising him there in 2013, should his attempts to secure the services of Jaque Fourie prove fruitless.
It is hard to believe that Pietersen, 26, is just short of a decade of Springbok duty. He has turned mentor to the likes of Raymond Rhule, whom he said has ‘a very bright future’. His generosity will, however, not extend to opening the door for the youngster through sub-standard performances. An unplanned period of rest has inadvertently galavanised him.
‘It was frustrating not to be in the Bok setup. I was saying to a friend that when I came back in the squad, seeing the guys, putting on that Bok gear again, I never thought I’d miss it this much because I’ve always been in the squad. I feel like a little boy back in the mix.’