“If you cut me open, I’ll bleed the green, white and red of Leicester Tigers.”
That statement wasn’t said by Tom Youngs, the recently retired hooker who has represented the East Midlands club on 215 occasions. Nor were they uttered by his brother Ben, who has played 63 more matches for the Premiership’s runaway leaders. They weren’t said as a parting eulogy by George Ford before his transfer to Sale, or by the captain Ellis Genge who has proved so many doubters wrong this campaign with his composed leadership.
As you might have guessed from the headline, these emotive words were shared by Jasper Wiese. The hulking South African loose forward only arrived in Leicester 20 months ago and has played just 40 games for a club he admits he knew little about growing up in the small town of Upington in the Northern Cape province. Superficially, this reads like public-relations friendly hyperbole, a chance to win over fans and curry favour with his coaches. But there is cause to take him at his word.
“My game has developed so much since I came here,” he says in a thick Afrikaans accent that conjures up images of meaty braais, the high veld and uncompromising rugby. “I can’t thank the coaching staff enough. The fans have been amazing. I really am so invested in this club and what we’re trying to achieve.”
When he joined Steve Borthwick’s rebuilding project, Wiese was a relatively unknown bruiser. He played provincial rugby for Griquas at the under-16 and under-18 levels, and played for the under-19 Free State team after moving to Bloemfontein. And though he was invited to train with the South Africa under-20 squad ahead of the 2015 junior World Cup, he did not make the trip to Italy.
After a season with the comparative minnows, the Griffons, he established himself at the Cheetahs, gaining experience in the Currie Cup and Pro 14 over three seasons. But with Duane Vermeulen firmly in command of the No 8 Springbok jersey, and with the Free State franchise shunted from the rebranded United Rugby Championship, he jumped at the chance to work with a once mighty institution in England.
“When I learned that they were looking to sign me I started watching some old games and reading up on the club,” Wiese says. “I also knew they were struggling a bit. But the passion and history was clear. I didn’t need too much convincing to join.
“When I got here I was blown away. You come out on a Saturday and you have 24,000 people, sometimes in the rain, in the cold. You come out and play with 40 other guys who all want it as badly as you do. That definitely makes it easier to bleed for Leicester.”
At 6’ 2’’ tall, and weighing 243 lbs, Wiese offers a physical threat on either side of the ball. But he has an erratic streak. Five yellow cards and one red – for a shoulder shot to the head of Wasps’ Ben Morris last year – suggests his exuberance requires some tempering.
Steve is an incredible coach. He holds us to a Test match standard. There’s no difference between Leicester training sessions and the Springboks. He focuses on the small details
“That’s one part of my game that the coaches here have helped me with,” he says. “Some of the cards I picked are because I was unlucky. But some were definitely me being too fired up in the moment when I should have been thinking more logically. When I look back, maybe I could have been more measured to control myself.”
Wiese credits Borthwick’s calming influence for a recent shift in his mindset. “He’s an intense character on the training field,” he says of Leicester’s head coach who has taken the club from 11th in the Premiership when he arrived in 2020, to within five games of a continental and domestic double.
“He’s an incredible coach,” Wiese adds. “He holds us to a Test match standard. There’s no difference between Leicester training sessions and the Springboks. He focuses on the small details.
“The way he’s helped me position myself to get into effective ball carrying positions, to carry the ball more and more effectively, to get around the pitch, to put myself in a position to make a dominant hit.
“We work on how I carry the ball so tacklers can’t strip it away from me. I’m constantly being reminded about my ball grip, to place the ball with one hand not two. Those sound like small details but he’s constantly emphasising them and eventually they become second nature.”
The expansion to his game saw him claim Leicester’s newcomer of the year award last season with an additional nomination for the Premiership’s corresponding prize. After another mighty performance in the Challenge Cup final in Twickenham, in which he scored a try in a one point loss to Montpellier, Borthwick suggested that a Springbok call-up wasn’t far off.
Ellis [Genge] is immense. He’s the life of the team. His love for the team can’t be questioned. If you don’t know him you might think he is a weird character. And he’s intense. But I know I could call him at five in the morning and he’d jump up to help me
The Leicester coach was right. Wiese made his Test debut in the 40-9 tune-up win over Georgia in preparation for the British and Irish Lions. With Vermeulen injured, and Kwagga Smith failing to exert the sort of physical dominance required at the back of the Bok pack, Wiese started both matches South Africa won and played every minute of the series clinching 19-16 triumph in Cape Town.
He now has 11 Test caps but won’t be drawn into a conversation about the Springboks. Vermeulen is back in control of the No 8 jersey and youngsters Elrigh Louw and Evan Roos have emerged as contenders. Though Wiese says that competition for places drives his own standards, he explains that no one demands more from him than his club captain.
“Ellis [Genge] is immense. He’s the life of the team. His love for the team can’t be questioned. If you don’t know him you might think he is a weird character. And he’s intense. But I know I could call him at five in the morning and he’d jump to help me. He’s just an outstanding guy and is the glue in the team.”
But for all the sentimental talk and conveyance of camaraderie, Wiese knows that the only currency that counts in this world is success. This Leicester outfit hasn’t achieved anything yet. And before their supporters can make plans for a Premiership final in London, or a Champions Cup final in Marseille, the squad must first navigate what is arguably the most exciting club match of the season so far.
“There’s not much to say, they’re a brilliant team,” Wiese says of the four-time European champions Leinster, who visit Welford Road this weekend for a quarterfinal that feels too good for a last eight encounter. “They’re so well drilled. We need to disrupt them physically, win collisions. We have to take that strength away in scrum time and maul time.
We front up and fucking make it personal. They’ve already said that they think they can beat us. It was maybe said in a different spirit but I’m choosing to take it personally
“We front up and fucking make it personal. They’ve already said that they think they can beat us. It was maybe said in a different spirit but I’m choosing to take it personally. If you’re not making everything personal, especially against a top team like Leinster, you’re going to get dominated.”
There’s that mongrel. There’s that fire that Borthwick has helped control rather than douse. There’s the promise of rattled bones, of rampaging thighs and of meaty forearms. There’s that heated blood, coursing through his body with a mix of green, white and red.