End of an Irish love affair

Ruan Pienaar said a tearful goodbye to Ulster after he and the Irish province were forced to part ways, writes JONATHAN BRADLEY.

'What an impact he has made, what a player he has been, what a legacy he leaves.’

These were the words chosen by BBC Northern Ireland’s long-time rugby commentator Jim Neilly to describe the emotional final moments of Ruan Pienaar’s Ulster career, which came to a tearful close against Leinster in the first weekend of May.

It was the day when Irish rugby’s long-running saga finally came to an end after it had been announced last September that the 88-time capped Springbok, and Ulster’s favourite adopted son, would be forced out of the country.

But, even with nine months to process the news, just as seven years ago nobody could quite believe the World Cup winner would arrive, there was not a person in Kingspan Stadium that balmy evening who could quite get their head around the fact this was the end of the line for the 33-year-old.

With the four Irish provinces governed by the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) – the sport’s governing body – rather than existing as separate entities from the national side, the unpopular decision not to offer Pienaar a contract extension came from high-performance manager David Nucifora, despite the fact the scrumhalf and club wanted to see him finish his playing days in Belfast.

After seven years of having a Springbok in the Ulster No 9 jersey, the IRFU was keen to give an Irish-qualified player his chance, so there was no room for negotiating. Instead, a move to Montpellier and the Top 14 beckons.

While Ulster have had to fall in with their paymasters, many in the province are known to still be seething at the decision to uproot not only Pienaar, but his wife, Monique, and their children, Lemay (4) and Jean-Luc (2), who are well settled in the north of Ireland.

‘Because I have been here for so long, I think some people might have thought this would never happen,’ says Pienaar. ‘That was certainly the case for me. I didn’t think it would be a problem, because this has been home to me for seven years.

‘Last May, it was the first time we really talked about negotiations. I said I would like to stay and I think the feedback from the IRFU was fairly negative from the beginning. From there I knew it was going to be tough to stay.’

Although there are high hopes for a number of No 9s in the Ulster Academy, there are precious few local talents ready to take on the mantle. As such, John Cooney, a Dubliner who has been plying his trade with Connacht, is the man set to come north and attempt to fill the biggest boots in Ulster.

He has been left with some act to follow.

While Pienaar’s fellow 2007 World Cup winner Johann Muller was, and still is, revered in Ulster, and the likes of Robbie Kempson, Pedrie Wannenburg and Nick Williams became cult figures at what was then called Ravenhill, there can be no arguing with the claim made by the team’s operations manager and one-time fullback, Bryn Cunningham, that the former Shark is the team’s greatest import.

It was a love affair from the beginning.

After Pienaar won three games in those early days of the 2010-11 season via the last kick of the game, he was quickly dubbed ‘Saint Ruan’ in corners of Ravenhill, but the best was yet to come.

With his first season in the northern hemisphere marking a return to the last eight of the European Cup after a 12-year absence, in the next campaign he was the central cog in the side that went all the way to the final, only to be decimated by an all-conquering Leinster team.

The loss in the big game was an all-too-familiar occurrence, though – not for a lack of effort on his part – as the province failed to win any silverware during his tenure, despite a host of near misses.

But it is not for the titles, or lack thereof, for which such a classy player and person will be remembered in Belfast. With a real knack for showing calmness in chaos, and an uncanny awareness of his surroundings, there is no doubt Pienaar had all the talents to go down in the annals of Ulster history, even if he seemed more appreciated in Belfast than his homeland.

But it is the man rather than the rugby player that has cultivated such a seemingly unbreakable bond between himself and the team’s fans.

Having shocked the Celtic Pro12 upon arrival, there was even greater surprise when he turned down the mega money on offer at free-spending Toulon in 2013. Forgoing the chance to form a deadly halfback duo with English legend Jonny Wilkinson in the Cote D’Azur,

Pienaar’s decision to stay in the less glamorous confines of Northern Ireland saw him miss out on the French side’s European triumphs in 2013-14 and 2014-15, as well as a Top 14 medal.

All the more the pity, therefore, that his loyalty wasn’t reciprocated.

Motivated by his strong Christian faith – the Durban native has been actively involved in the church and spreading its message for the duration of his Ulster career – Pienaar has said that neither money nor trophies have been his prime driving force, and he will never regret the decision to stay in Ireland for as long as possible.

Indeed, he is so attached to the small country he now calls home that he is already ‘99% sure’ he and his family will be back once his stint in the south of France has come to an end.

Like his father, Gysie, who was also a Springbok and capped 13 times in the early-1980s, he sees a future in coaching, hoping to one day become involved in the Ulster Academy and help to mould the province’s next generation of talent.

Most importantly, however, he just wants to be back where his family will be happiest.

‘We enjoy it so much here and that’s why it’s so sad to say goodbye,’ he says. ‘All I want is to see my wife and kids happy, and they’re happy in Belfast.

‘The only thing I want to see is smiles on my wife and kids’ faces. As long as they’re happy, it makes the job a lot easier for me. We’re pretty sure we’ll come back to Belfast to live one day.

‘I’d love to stay involved with the game after my playing days. My wife and I would love to come back here. If the opportunity came up where I could give something back to this club, I would grab it with both hands.

‘Hopefully I can add value in a different way, but even if it’s not for rugby, I’d love to move back to Belfast. This is home for us.’

In the meantime, Ulster will miss him desperately, but should that return ever come to pass, you can guarantee he will be welcomed back with the most open of arms.

– This article first appeared in the July 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine


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Simon Borchardt