When you listen to Joe Pietersen speak about his arrival as a Vodacom Stormers Super 14 regular this season, you get the impression that he is one of those who subscribes to the philosophy that when the good times come, you must let them keep rolling and enjoy the moment.
It is hard to fathom that just two years ago Pietersen’s most memorable role in the early part of the rugby season was his appearance in the Maties team that won the inaugural Varsity Cup final. With Conrad Jantjes firmly ensconced as the Vodacom Stormers fullback and with no gap to fill on the wings, Vodacom Super 14 rugby seemed a long way away for the likeable product of Grey College in Bloemfontein.
Last year saw a brief flirtation with flyhalf as the Vodacom Stormers management sought a solution to a perceived lack of depth in that key area, but after the opening Vodacom Super 14 game against the Sharks, he wasn’t seen again for a couple of months.
At least he wasn’t seen again until the match against the Western Force when the Vodacom Stormers returned from their overseas tour. With several players out injured, it was a youthful team captained by Luke Watson, and Pietersen was selected at his preferred position of fullback.
‘That turned out to be my most memorable appearance in a Vodacom Stormers jersey,’ recalls Pietersen.
‘The team had been a bit unlucky on tour before winning the last game, and we had our backs to the wall before the game against the Force. But we won quite well and I had a really enjoyable game at fullback, scoring two tries in addition to a sound performance generally.’
It was that game that marked him as a long-term selection at fullback, with the Vodacom Stormers going on to comprehensively outplay the Vodacom Cheetahs in the last Vodacom Super 14 match. Then came an Absa Currie Cup where Pietersen was one of the star performers in a much improved Western Province team.
‘Playing against the Vodacom Blue Bulls in the semi-final was another big experience for me; it was a really special occasion,’ says Pietersen.
Many felt he was unlucky to miss out on the Springbok tour squad, but that is where we encounter Pietersen’s philosophy. Instead of saying that he wants to be a Springbok, he gives an answer that suggests he knows that every game could potentially be his last.
‘In terms of personal goals, you have to realise that a week can be a really long time in rugby, so you have to live from week to week, just do the best that you can and enjoy yourself while doing it. I work hard at getting the little aspects of my game right.’
In terms of influences on his career so far, he singles out former record-breaking Springbok and Vodacom Stormers fullback Percy Montgomery.
‘Monty helped me a lot when he was involved with the Stormers. I learnt a lot from him, particularly when it comes to kicking and positional play. My family have also been awesome. They moved to Paarl from Margate on the KZN South Coast when I went to Grey in Standard Eight [Grade 10], and my dad doesn’t miss any games.’
Goal-kicking has become a relatively new string to Pietersen’s bow, but it isn’t a craft that he only recently started working on.
‘What a lot of people don’t realise is that in every team there are usually three or four players who can kick for goal, and they all work on the place-kicking at training during the week. There is usually only one guy on match day, but there are a lot more who work on it.
‘I am pleased with the way my place-kicking has developed as it is something I have been working on for quite a long time. I really enjoyed taking that long-range shot at goal against the Lions and was pleased that although I never had the direction, the kick had the distance from well within our own half. Of course, the ball does travel a lot further on the Highveld.’
Sharks and Springbok utility back Ruan Pienaar is someone who is known to lose confidence in his general play if the goal-kicking doesn’t go well for him, but Pietersen says he isn’t one of those players who suffers from the same affliction.
‘When I line up a kick I concentrate hard on it but once I have kicked and the game moves on I don’t think about it again. I think it is important when you kick for goal to get into a little bubble and divorce it from the rest of your game,’ says Pietersen.
Pietersen made his Absa Currie Cup debut for WP in 2004 and for the Vodacom Stormers in 2006, but agrees that it is only really now that he is starting to feel like a regular.
‘The past year has been a lekker time for me and I have been enjoying the responsibility that comes with playing at this level. I enjoy the pressure. I think the key for me is that I have started to play a lot of consecutive games for the Vodacom Stormers and Vodacom WP, and that is important if you want to build up form and confidence.
‘In answer to the question of whether something just suddenly clicked to make me come right, I think it is down to all the boys in the team playing well. It is much easier to get into a groove and play well if everything around you is working well.’
Although he played Free State Schools when he was at Grey, Pietersen says he cannot imagine playing his rugby for any other province or franchise.
‘I really enjoy the Cape. I love the vibe in this town, and without wanting to put the mockers on the team, I think the Vodacom Stormers are starting to really come together, with everyone in sync and the team spirit really good at the moment.’
Although he has played most of his rugby at fullback, Pietersen says he hasn’t ‘been fazed’ when asked to play other positions.
‘You do that if the team needs you to do it, it is a team sport. I didn’t mind playing flyhalf, in fact I quite enjoyed it, but I am happiest at fullback,’ he says.
In terms of improvements he wants to make to his game, Pietersen reckons there is always space for development.
‘I have been working on my kicking, and there is always this perception about small guys on defence, so that is an area I am working at and want to improve.’
This feature article was written by Sports Journalist Gavin Rich and appeared in the Vodacom Stormers official Match Magazine (Vodacom Stormers vs Waratahs), sold at Newlands Rugby Stadium on match day.