There might have been a more influential and committed ‘overseas’ signing than Ruan Pienaar in the last 18 seasons since rugby turned professional but I very much doubt it. Ulster’s Springbok World Cup winner arrived at Ravenhill in his absolute pomp three seasons ago – a rare occurrence in Britain and Ireland – and has played his heart out while contributing fully to Ulster’s off-the-field development.
This is the man who has so embraced Ulster – the team, the Province and the bloody weather – that just before Christmas he walked away from a Euro-laden three year contract offer from Toulon (2,899 hours of annual sunshine) to sign on for another three years in the comparative twilight of Belfast (1,290 hours on a good year although nobody can remember the last time that was).
Pienaar is hard core, loyal and inspirational and Ulster readily acknowledge they have struck lucky with the man from Bloemfontein. Signing up big names and hired hands is a fact of life in professional sport, but rugby took a long while to fully take that notion on board. Initially there was a strong suspicion that some of those concerned were seeking employment in Britain and Ireland as a last minute pension scheme although club treasurers argued they helped to put bums on seats. A fair few were genuine enough in their intentions but were the betrayed by creaking bodies and long term injuries. Very few were on the way up, most were on the way down.
That has changed and Pienaar is the living proof. He is still only 29 and made his decision to join Ulster in 2010 before the Springboks finally made up their minds that playing ‘overseas’ should not disqualify an individual from appearing for the national team. New Zealand and Australia still beg to differ on that one so we still rarely get the cream of their crop from the ANZAC axis. In the Northern Hemisphere South Africa is increasingly proving the most fertile ground for big clubs seeking ‘big hitters’ but that still doesn’t quite explain how Ulster managed to land and then keep
Pienaar. Luck played a big part and possibly divine intervention as well.
“I decided quite early in my career that I would like to play overseas but had no great thoughts to where exactly,” says Pienaar who has 74 Springbok caps already. “Then I was having a chat with Johann Muller, a good friend from the Natal Sharks, a couple of months after he signed for Ulster and I almost jokingly asked was there room for another over there? Soon after David Humphreys rang and spoke very well about the team’s big ambitions on and off the field and the rest is history. Something just clicked in my mind, a gut feeling. There were other options but immediately Ulster sounded a good fit.
“I am a strong and committed Christian, that’s what I stand for and I am not afraid to admit that, and now I realise that perhaps I find myself in Belfast and Ulster for reasons that are not entirely to do with rugby although that is obviously big part of it. I have been given the chance to be part of a really special community here and to give back by visiting schools and clubs and talking to anybody who want to listen about Christianity as well a rugby.
“To be honest I knew little of Belfast and Ulster before we arrived, I was acting on instinct and the recommendations of individuals I admire like Johann. Our first day visiting Ravenhill the weather wasn’t great and as we walked around the old stand which was more or less falling down my wife Monique did whisper “what are we letting ourselves in for Ruan?” But it didn’t seem to matter at all, we could sense the warmth of the people and feel the ambition of everybody concerned. There was a real challenge here and work to be done among great people.
“We settled very quickly and that’s testament to club and people who made us very welcome. I was brought up in Bloemfontein on the veldt and it might seem a million miles away but in many ways it wasn’t. Neither of them are big cities, they are not flash and there is a real hometown feeling about both of them. The support for Ulster is as strong if we lose or don’t play so well as when we have a good victory. The fans are right behind us.
“The fact is that when Toulon showed an interest last autumn I had already found what I was looking for. Everybody has been so welcoming and loyal to us as a family – our daughter Lemay was born here, and why on earth would I want to leave at such an exciting time? The team is developing, our fantastic new ground is close to completion and will have 18,000 all seated for the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Saracens in April. The Toulon offer was a very good one and, as a rugby player, you look at the squad of world class players they have assembled and think ‘wow’ and you know that the lifestyle in the south of France would be amazing, but really I felt complete peace in my heart when I decided to stay at Ulster. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else at this stage of my life.”
As the member of an informal and occasional Bible reading group at Ulster, Pienaar will know that such a scenario is well covered in Ecclesiastes 111: “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”
The son of former Springbok full-back Gysie Pienaar, Pienaar junior has played Test rugby at fly-half, full-back and scrum-half but it is the latter where he has finally settled for club and country while his superb goal-kicking has proved invaluable for Ulster when he steps in to that role. A total of 605 points from 74 games is a pretty decent return especially as Paddy Jackson is often entrusted with that job. Not in the really big games though.
In his last three outings Pienaar chipped in with match-winning hauls of 19 against Munster, 17 against Montpellier and all 22 at Welford Road last month when Ulster claimed that memorable Heineken Cup win over Leicester. Pienaar is a proven winner – he has World Cup winning medals at U19, U21 and senior level with South Africa and a Currie Cup with the Sharks – and at Ulster they are beginning to sniff silverware having finished runners up in the RaboDirect Pro 12 and Heineken Cup since his arrival.
Since joining Ulster in 2010 Pienaar has won 31 of his 74 Springbok caps which has made for a busy lifestyle but proved convincingly that you can combine a Northern Hemisphere club career with a Southern Hemisphere international season. And for all of his world class talent it is not as if he is an absolute shoe-in for he Boks – the return of Fourie du Preez at scrum-half has livened up selection and there is always a young tyro in South Africa poised to make a breakthrough. Their strength in depth and competition for places is second only to New Zealand.
“In terms of my international career it has been a big move coming to Ulster because I love playing for my country and it is a strong ambition to make the squad for the 2015 World Cup in England. It was taking a bit of a risk because when I signed, the year before the 2011 World Cup, the policy wasn’t clear cut. Luckily there is now that leeway to play abroad – Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Francois Louw, Bakkies Botha and myself up here in Europe – and it seems to work well although possibly South Africa didn’t think there would be quite so many of us. It does make it very busy bouncing straight from the end of the domestic season into the Rugby Championship and then in November straight from the autumn international into a key phase of the season for Ulster but I can honestly say it seems to work pretty well.
“I’ve been blessed with good health and few injuries which has helped and the main issue is staying fresh mentally. If I can get a complete break from rugby I take it with both hands and the club are very good like that.
“Straight after that busy run either side of Christmas and the big Heineken Cup pool decider at Leicester the pressure eased off just a little bit as the Six Nations started to take over and I went down to South Africa for two weeks sun with Ulster’s blessing. You have to get away from the game sometimes to stay fresh. Back in Ireland I love it when some family visit, we hire a minibus or big car and head up to Portrush or Portstuart and do all the tourist stuff by the Giant’s Causeway. It is one of the most beautiful coastlines I have seen anywhere in the world. You need to enjoy the moment and get about and talk to the people whose country you are a guest in.
“We have a great set of guys at Ulster. Like I say I am a committed Christian and there are a number of others like Johann, Andrew Trimble and Paul Marshall which is really good, but, listen, our entire squad is made up of outstanding individuals whether they be Christians or not. They all have their own lifestyles, qualities and beliefs and the thing, as with every walk of life, is to get the best out of that mix.
“I enjoy helping to mentor the younger players and have been delighted as they begin to get their call-ups with Ireland
and I enjoy the responsibility of being a senior player who perhaps they turn to sometimes in big games. I will do anything I can to help the team. The key for me is always preparation before the match. To be confident I like to know that I have done everything in my power to prepare properly during the week, if I don’t the nerves start coming.
“The only bad thing I can say about Ulster is the rain, it can be horrible. This last week or so since I got back from South Africa I have never seen rain like it in my life but, hand on my heart, the people and the rugby more than make up for the atrocious weather.”
It could rain for 40 days and 40 nights – not totally unknown in Belfast frankly – and you fancy Pienaar would still find the positive, not the negative. If anybody can get Ulster past the finishing post this season it is him.