JP Pietersen’s last-second, try-saving hit on Thomas “the Tank Engine” Waldrom was, in the greater scheme of the series with victory already assured for the Springboks, not necessary, and yet it was. It was the final touch on as good an all-round performance as you will see by any international wing in any era.
Pietersen’s shove on Waldrom, a 1.83-metre tall, 111kg from Lower Hutt in New Zealand, inevitably brought on comparisons with his try-saving tackle on Ifereimi Rawaqa, the 1.97m ,113kg Fijian lock in the 2007 World Cup quarterfinal in Marseille. That tackle saved the Springboks from what was shaping up to be the biggest choke in international rugby since, well, since the All Blacks were undone by France that same weekend. Five years ago Pietersen caught and twisted Rawaqa when he was over the line; on Saturday night at Ellis Park, he merely gave Waldrom a shove out of play.
“I was just there at the right moment at the right time. Luckily for me I just pushed him out and he’s quite a big boy,” smiled Pietersen, who might not have been on the field had Heyneke Meyer, the Springbok coach, gone with his head instead of his gut and replaced the injured Pietersen at haltime. Meyer admitted he had wanted to take him off at halftime.
“I got winded 10 minutes before halftime in a tackle and I couldn’t get my breath back. I was a bit tired on the field and that was the time when the game actually picked up. I was a bit down on my fitness, but in my second half I was all good,” said Pietersen.”I recovered well and put in a good 80 minutes of work.”
England and the rest of the rugby world were left breathless by the try he scored with just under 10 minutes left in the match. Pietersen picked off a long kick by Jonathan Joseph, ran towards Alain Rolland, the referee, a smart move as the Irishman inadvertently opened the gap for him. He then thundered past four attempted tackles before a combination of Tom Johnson and Ben Youngs dragged him to the turf.
“I was just happy that the gap opened for me when I was in broken play. I took my opportunity when I saw it there. Luckily I went for the ref and he opened up the gap for me. I finished it off well at the end,” he grinned.
Ah, the finish, which came after the Springboks had rumbled it to the left through Frans Steyn and then back towards the right again through Flip van der Merwe, Francois Hougaard and finally Pierre Spies. Ruan Pienaar flipped the ball to Jean de Villiers who whipped it to Pietersen on the wing. Pietersen celebrated with a looping dive that gave Youngs the time to almost knock the ball out of his hands. De Villiers said that he had had his “heart in his throat” during the dive and had instructed Pietersen never to do it again. Pietersen agreed.
“I don’t think I’ll dive like that again. That’s my last dive like that. Next time I’ll just put it down,” he said, not a little sheepishly.
While Meyer paid tribute to the way England came back into the match, Pietersen believed the Springboks had allowed them to in the second half, making mistakes on set pieces and the scrums. “We kicked the ball too long, on one kick in particular. We gave away soft penalties and they scored a try from a throw over the lineout. We definitely gave them confidence. There wasn’t a sense of panic. Jean just reminded us to stick to our structures and our basics. Everybody went back to that. There was no panic on the field. Jean is a great leader and did well.”
Pietersen could have had two tries, failing to hold on to an inside flick from De Villiers in the 35th minute after Steyn had opened up England with a grubber. He said it was a “little cross” with himself for that, but pleased with where he was in terms of form.
“Definitely my all-round performance on the field, on defence and attack, have gotten better,” said Pietersen. “But there are still things I can work on. I’ve improved on getting the basics right as much as the ‘impossible’ things. It’s about working on what you have to do well on the field. I’m a bit cross that I didn’t score that first try when Jean gave me the ball. I let myself down there.
Work-rate comes first as a wing and as a player. That’s what helps a team when they are tired, when you are scrambling. Work rate is what makes a team. It creates opportunity for us as players to pop up at nine and run from 10.
“I’ve definitely improved since I started as a Springbok. This is a golden moment for me. I think I’m playing my best rugby as a Springbok player.”