Dominating Europe

Springbok scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar has been in excellent form for Ulster, writes PAUL MORGAN.

Every season in the northern hemisphere, December and January are frantic months as all the teams start the process of finalising their squads for the following season. Players come and players go but the audible sigh of relief that emanated from Ravenhill when Ruan Pienaar signed a new three-year contract could be heard across the length and breadth of Ireland.

It is hard to overestimate the influence Pienaar has had on the Irish province since arriving from the Sharks in 2010. His performances for them have put him in the top echelons of European club rugby.

That impact was never better demonstrated than in January when Pienaar was the inspiration behind Ulster’s hugely significant win at Welford Road against the Leicester Tigers. It was a victory that ensured they were the European Cup’s top seeds after the pool stage and ended a six-year winning run in Europe at home for the Tigers.

Pienaar grabbed the headlines because he scored each and every one of Ulster’s 22 points but his influence runs far deeper than the scoreboard. His ability to marshal the team at Ulster is felt every time they play. His game management, tactical awareness and obviously his goal-kicking make him an invaluable asset to a province that has gone from strength to strength in the past few years.

Ulster are benefiting from some significant South African influence and while Pienaar is leading the backline behind a powerful pack, that power is coming from Johann Muller.

They have been pivotal in Ulster’s recent good form as the management have built a team of Irishmen around them.

‘It seems like it’s happening every week, that he scores all the points,’ says Muller.

But despite Pienaar’s obvious influence on the team, like many great players, his first response to praise is humility.

‘The forwards played really well,’ he said after the win over Leicester. ‘And we controlled the game pretty well with our kicking game. Our forwards were outstanding. They made a couple of massive hits.’

Pienaar – probably because of his father Gysie’s career – has always been regarded as a player with a huge amount of ‘natural’ talent but, as Muller explains, that theory does Pienaar no service as it overlooks his huge work ethic, the real reason for his success.

‘A huge amount of credit to him – it doesn’t just happen. He puts in a lot of hard work; he puts hours and hours into his kicking and it’s wonderful when it pays off,’ Muller adds. ‘When we played Leicester I went with him to do kicking practice and he did not miss one all day. He was outstanding and kicked them from 60, 62m. From a captain’s point of view, it gives you a lot of confidence.’

'It doesn’t just happen. He puts in a lot of hard work; he puts hours and hours into his kicking and it’s wonderful when it pays off' – Johann Muller

Bloemfontein-born Pienaar has been heavily influential since making the journey from the Sharks to Ulster. In his first match for the province the supporters knew management had brought someone special to Northern Ireland, with him scoring all the points as Ulster beat Glasgow.

He was named at scrumhalf in the Celtic League Dream Team in his first two seasons and finished last season on top of his game, scoring all Ulster’s 18 points as they lost the Pro12 final to Leinster.

Pienaar is clearly at home in either the No 10 or 9 jersey but Ulster have consistently selected him at scrumhalf. Coach Mark Anscombe explains pragmatically: ‘When you have one of the best – if not the best – No 9s in the world, why would you play him anywhere else?’

That level of confidence shown in him by the coaches has helped Pienaar keep his performance at world-class level and this season helped take Ulster to the No 1 spot after the European Cup pool stage. That led to him being among the 15 long-list nominees for this season’s ERC European Player of the Year award. Of all the players on the list, if he hadn’t made it, the decision would have led to an inquiry.

Staying at scrumhalf also allows Pienaar to increase his influence on the side and use the invaluable experience that is only gained by winning 74 Test caps.

When the 2007 World Cup winner was in contract talks with Ulster earlier this year, there was speculation world rugby’s biggest spenders, Toulon, had the South African on their radar, which is why it was a relief for Ulster fans – and the management team – to see him sign on the dotted line.

‘To be successful, you need top-class players, therefore I am extremely pleased that Ruan, who is one of the best scrumhalves anywhere in the world, is extending his time with us,’ said Ulster’s director of rugby, David Humphreys.

‘The announcement of this contract will give everyone at Ulster – the players, the staff and the fans – a huge lift, especially as it had been wrongly reported that Ruan would be leaving us.

‘It was no surprise to us that his services were coveted by other clubs, but we always knew that what we could offer him in terms of a great playing squad, a world-class stadium and state-of-the-art training facilities would be enough to make him want to stay at the club.

‘Ruan’s decision to commit to three more years at Ravenhill is a huge endorsement of what we are doing at Ulster and I have no doubt he will be a key part of our success in the coming seasons.’

Those at Ravenhill, particularly their fanatical supporters, will no doubt agree.

– This article first appeared in the March issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Simon Borchardt