Torturing ‘Tiger’

RYAN VREDE writes that the Springboks have not gained full value out of one of their finest assets, Ruan Pienaar.

Pienaar is disillusioned with rugby and particularly with Springbok coach Peter de Villiers. A move to Ulster beckons and that is likely to mean that he will play no role in the Springboks’ World Cup defence in New Zealand in 2011.

There seems to be no opportunity for redemption for the Springbok selectors – Pienaar has his heart and mind set on a move to the Irish side. But for the immediate improvement of the side, Pienaar must start in Brisbane against Australia on Saturday.

No longer can Ricky Januarie’s ponderous service from the scrum and ruck base be tolerated, and no longer must the Springboks’ coaching staff be allowed to con the South African rugby fraternity with the rhetoric that his kicking game is good enough for the team not to have to alter the approach that brought them success in 2009. It is not and never has been.

For a player who came into the Wellington Test low on confidence and short on game time at scrumhalf, Pienaar acquitted himself well. The Springboks’ phase play was far more dynamic and fluent. But to build a case for Pienaar based on that performance alone is foolish. To argue for him based on Januarie’s consistent mediocrity is not.

Pienaar, 41 Tests into his Springbok career, has unbelievably started just four Tests at scrumhalf, despite him continually insisting that it is his preferred position and the one where he feels he can add the most value. That assertion is supported by his Super Rugby performances in 2007 and late 2010. It’s no coincidence that his superb form had a direct correlation to the number of matches he started in succession.

Pienaar has played in every backline position, barring outside centre, for the Springboks. Tellingly he has only once started four consecutive Tests in the same position (scrumhalf in 2007). He has never come off the bench more than thrice consecutively in the same position. It’s a travesty that a talent this precocious has been so diabolically managed.

Jake White, Dick Muir, John Plumtree and De Villiers are all culpable, in varying degrees and for varying reasons, for failing to maximise Pienaar’s potential and for forcing his hand regarding the overseas move.

White started the rot in 2007, insisting that Pienaar was talented enough to play across all positions in the back division. White handed Pienaar his debut in 2006, and then instilled him as his premier No 9 in the Tri-Nations, before the positional mayhem began. White ended his reign with Pienaar deployed at fullback; despite 2007 being Pienaar’s strongest ever season at scrumhalf.

De Villiers’ lack of a plan is shameful and can be traced back to 2008, where he told Pienaar he needed to specialise at scrumhalf if he hoped to challenge for a place in the Springboks’ squad. He told the player he was the number four scrumhalf in the country at the time, behind Fourie du Preez, Januarie and Bolla Conradie.

The folly behind that ranking system is exposed by the fact that Conradie never played for the Springboks after 2008 and is currently languishing in the Currie Cup First Division with Boland. De Villiers has consistently defended Januarie, despite the widely held view that his form doesn’t warrant continued selection.

By the end of 2008 De Villiers had revealed Pienaar as his answer at flyhalf, then in 2009 famously told the media that he was ‘the Tiger Woods of world rugby’. Pienaar had an ordinary series against the British & Irish Lions and his cause wasn’t helped by Morné Steyn’s heroics in the second Test. ‘Tiger’ has started just one out of a possible 12 Tests (he couldn’t be considered for one as a result of injury) at flyhalf since then.

He has, however, been used as a fullback twice in 2009, strangely just after it was announced that Frans Steyn (the incumbent at the time) was moving to Racing Metro. De Villiers’ views on overseas-based players are well known, and one can’t help but think that Pienaar’s selection was being used to teach Steyn a lesson.

It appears De Villiers has abandoned his belief that Pienaar is his saviour at pivot, having deployed him as a reserve scrumhalf thrice since he last started at flyhalf against Wales in Cardiff in June, and once as a fullback.

The warning signs that Pienaar was growing tired of poor management and lack of role definition were there since 2008, when he gave the Sharks an ultimatum to play him at scrumhalf or risk losing him (Pienaar had filled in at flyhalf for much of the Super Rugby campaign after Frederic Michalak was injured). He was then asked to play in the position once more in 2009 when Juan Martin Hernandez sustained a back injury that ruled him out of the Super 14.

Pienaar then shone at No 9 in the latter stages of the 2010 Super 14, but form wasn’t a consideration when De Villiers named Januarie, who spent the bulk of the season on the Stormers’ bench, as his premier No 9, after Du Preez announced his unavailability due to injury.

It’s unacceptable that a player as gifted as Pienaar has been treated in the manner he has and it irks that the preference for a player as inferior as Januarie has denied Pienaar the opportunity to fully exhibit that gift.

De Villiers has an opportunity to bolster his side for the Brisbane Test by relenting on his fascination with Januarie and starting Pienaar. If he doesn’t it will tell the tale of a man whose ego clouds his judgement to the detriment of his side. That situation must not be tolerated at any level of coaching, least of all at its elite level.

Torturing ‘Tiger’

Pienaar’s career starting at scrumhalf – 4 for a total of 320 minutes
Pienaar’s career as a substitute scrumhalf – 11 for a total of 183 minutes
Pienaar’s career starting at flyhalf – 7 for a total of 469 minutes
Pienaar’s career as a substitute flyhalf – 6 for a total of 115 minutes
Pienaar in other positions – Fullback 6 (including two starts for a total of 195 minutes), centre (1 sub appearance for a total of 17 minutes), wing (2 sub appearances for a total of 16 minutes)

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