SO MUCH has changed since JP Pietersen became a Springbok in 2006 that he would be forgiven for feeling that debut had taken place in a different lifetime.
Two World Cup campaigns have come and gone, the South Africans have had two changes of coach, and Pietersen himself has been transformed from a raw full-back to a well-rounded winger.
But, as he looks forward to the honour of leading out the team on the occasion of his 50th cap tomorrow, the 27-year-old feels it has all taken place in the blink of an eye. “It probably feels like yesterday,” he said after being named in the team to play Scotland. “It’s a massive milestone for me to play my 50th cap. To represent your country 50 times is a massive achievement, and I’m just thankful for all the blessings that have come my way for all this time.
“I remember most of my Test career, the highlights and the downs of it. The highlights are definitely my first cap, and winning the World Cup in 2007. The whole World Cup experience stands out for me as something that as a young boy was a fairy tale. I’m just lucky I was part of the team and played my part.”
South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer would say that hard work and talent have played a bigger role in Pietersen’s career than luck. “This is really a magnificent achievement for one of the many world-class wingers South African rugby has produced,” Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer said. “For more than seven years, JP has been one of the most consistent players for the Springboks.
“He always gives everything he has for his country and this is just reward for the hard work and dedication he’s put in over the years. Was it not for injuries, JP would probably have played many more Tests.”
Despite starting international life as a full-back, Pietersen has gone on to win 47 of his 49 caps to date on the wing. From being mentored by Percy Montgomery, he now imparts his wisdom to the younger players himself.
“Percy Montgomery helped me through my early Test career. I was still young and wild and made a lot of mistakes. I think I’m now choosing the right moments, making the right decisions and being in the right places. That comes with experience and learning the game. I understand the game much better now than when I was young.”
Having said that, the right-winger was quick to insist he is far from the finished article. Injuries have hampered his career at times, and he has some way to go to catch up with team-mate Bryan Habana, who will win his 94th cap on the opposite wing tomorrow.
What is more, Pietersen’s self-criticism extends to the team as a whole. They were unconvincing in victory against Wales last week, and although much of the South African public is taking another win this weekend for granted, he is convinced the team will need to up their game.
“Personally, I was unhappy with my performance last week. I think I was still a bit rusty, and maybe I was still trying to get used to the new combinations a little bit,” he added.
“As a team we talked about where we can improve. I think we can improve all-round. We can be much better than we were against Wales. We played well first half, but gave a lot of soft penalties away. Indiscipline got the better of us and we need to improve on that.
“I wasn’t involved. We lose the ball, we give a penalty away, so it’s difficult for a wing to be involved in a game like that, to run off ten, to run off nine, to get in a good position.
“I can also improve on my work rate. We all know we need to improve [against Scotland].
“We’ll need to be at our best. I think the most important thing will be our breakdown. We need to slow down their breakdown – we know they’re going to be aggressive there. And also they keep the ball for very long phases. We need to be patient in defence and not give penalties away. And just soak up the pressure. It’s probably going to be windy, so the conditions will not be the best for us to have a running game, but we’ve got a good structure and we’ll need to stick to it.”
And, while pleased to be given the traditional honour of emerging from the tunnel first, Pietersen is convinced that only one thing will really count about tomorrow’s game. “It’s special leading a team out.
“I think you’ve probably earned it for your 50th cap, and I’ll enjoy it. But the most important thing is we need to win – that will be the most special thing for me.”
Off the pitch, meanwhile, the Springboks are making the most of their trip to Scotland, and yesterday Habana led a group of his team-mates on a visit to The Spartans Community Football Academy in Edinburgh. The South Africa players swapped their rugby boots for football boots but lost out 3-2 in a penalty shoot-out against a group of a local youngsters from the Laureus-supported Street League project.
Habana, who was accompanied to Spartans’ ground early in the morning by Springboks captain Jean de Villiers and squad members Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira, Scarra Ntubeni and Frans Malherbe, said: “It has been great fun meeting the kids. Maybe next time we will take them on at kicking penalties between the posts with a rugby ball rather than soccer goals.”
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH