Ruan Pienaar needs to deliver a performance worthy of his undoubted talent in order to silence his detractors.
On Tuesday Peter de Villiers admitted that selecting his flyhalf was one of his toughest decisions. Despite claiming he would always look to select on form, De Villiers ignored Morne Steyn’s series-sealing effort against the British & Irish Lions at Loftus, instead keeping faith in Pienaar.
While Pienaar’s talent is undoubted and he has proved he can be a match-winner for the Boks, the problem is the pivot has not produced the consistent performances necessary to be considered a truly reliable flyhalf at this level.
Since his permanent move to the No 10 jersey in November last year the Sharks flyhalf has produced quality performances against Wales and England overseas, as well as a solid showing in the opening Lions Test. However, intertwined with this, Pienaar failed to impress against Scotland as well as in the second Lions Test, which gave Steyn the opportunity to kick the winning penalty as Pienaar was hauled from the field.
Behind a lightweight pack in the third Test Steyn failed to book his starting place for the Tri-Nations. De Villiers was reluctant to select Steyn at the start of the Lions’ series - with only the manner of the Bulls’ Super 14 triumph forcing De Villiers’s hand. However, the Ellis Park Test further ruined Steyn’s hopes of currently being the holder of the No 10 jersey.
This, along with De Villiers’s belief that Pienaar is the ‘Tiger Woods’ of rugby, sees Pienaar as the first-choice pivot for the foreseeable future. Along with the unnecessary pressure that this statement has placed on Pienaar, the pivot is also coming off an injury-plagued Super 14. Although fully fit now, Pienaar doesn’t have the adequate game-time that would boost his confidence.
What will be reassuring for Pienaar is those players around him. As is the case in any match, it is crucial for the pack to lay the platform that allows the pivot to dictate the flow and tempo of the game. In this regard, the presence of the world’s best scrumhalf Fourie du Preez will ensure Pienaar is relieved of much of the decision-making.
On attack, Pienaar does have the tendency to run across field and negate the space of his outside runners. It will be crucial Pienaar is able to stand up to the All Blacks’ physicality and plays a direct game that will put his side on the front-foot.
Defensively, the forced selection of Jean de Villiers due to Adi Jacobs’s injury at inside centre will be a God-send for Pienaar. A 10-12 axis of Pienaar and Jacobs would have been a glaring weakness, but the combination of De Villiers and Jaque Fourie strenghtens the hosts. Pienaar will still be judged as the weak link in the defensive line, but it is imperative that he imposes himself physically in contact.
Another question-mark surrounds Pienaar’s goal-kicking. At Test level, a 75% success-rate is deemed a minimum, and Pienaar will have to deliver here throughout the Tri-Nations. The Boks don’t want a kicker who will get six out of six one week and one out of six the next, they would rather have a kicker who will get five out of six every week.
Stephen Donald will be rightly viewed as the visitors’ weak link, but Pienaar will be similarly targeted. A key factor aiding Pienaar in his first Test at flyhalf against the world’s No 1-ranked side will be the presence of those Boks in the 9 and 12 jerseys.
By Grant Ball, in Bloemfontein