Doing the dirty work

MARTIN GILLINGHAM, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says Ruan Pienaar’s stint with Ulster has given him a harder edge.

Ruan Pienaar is a stoic oke. In his own words he’s ‘probably one of the more relaxed No 9s around the world of rugby’. On the evidence of his first season in Europe he’s a calming influence in front of 80 000 baying Poms at Twickenham and also the first man to raise a smile on a grim evening when the Celtic League is at its down and dirtiest. Which is probably why the 27-year-old former Shark emerged as the Man of the Match when Ulster went toe-to-toe with the Glasgow Warriors in March. Pienaar was responsible for all of his team’s points in their 22-19 victory that night. He scored a try and the decisive penalty, his fifth, sailed through the posts with only seconds left on the clock.

Pienaar has been a pivotal figure for his new club, slotting not only match-winning goals in the Celtic League but also forming an effective halfback partnership with Ian Humphreys which saw Ulster reach their first European Cup quarter-final for 12 years.

The backcloth to the stylish Springbok’s star turn in the west of Scotland was the less than salubrious Firhill. On Friday nights the ‘stadium’ is home to Scotland’s second professional rugby team. Twenty-four hours later the posts have given way to nets and goals when Irn-Bru Scottish Football League Division One club Partick Thistle move in. They’re not Scotland’s finest. As their most famous fan Billy Connolly once said, ‘I was brought up in Partick. The football team is Partick Thistle FC. I say that because most Englishmen think they’re called Partick Thistle Nil.’

If Pienaar’s psyche needed hardening up then you can be sure that a season touring the Celtic circuit will have done it. From the Galway greyhound track (home of Connacht) to ramshackle Rodney Parade (Newport Gwent Dragons), every expense has been spared.

Firhill tops the lot, though. The ground is open at one end and has tenement flats at the other. The timber enclosure that runs the length of one side of the pitch has a condemned look about it. All in all, it’s the complete antithesis of Kings Park. Or Twickenham for that matter. Which is where Pienaar’s beloved Sharks were in action over that same March weekend. More than 35 000 watched the South African franchise take on the Crusaders in Super Rugby.

Pienaar could have been forgiven if he’d looked on with regrets. Just 2 000 people and a handful of security staff adorned in fluorescent yellow bibs had witnessed Pienaar’s vintage display in Scotland.

If ever there was an occasion capable of breaking Pienaar’s spirit that would have been it.

‘Glasgow was probably the worst place I’ve ever played rugby,’ he says. ‘The pitch was terrible. It was like playing on a sandpit, there wasn’t much grass.’

If truth be told, Ulster’s stock-in-trade, the Celtic League, is the weakest of Europe’s three domestic leagues. The French Top 14 is currently the most affluent and most competitive. With just two rounds of the 26-week league phase to go, nine of the 14 teams were in the running for play-off places. England’s Premiership is next best, thriving as it does on the revenue raised through the competition involving two of the world’s biggest subscription broadcasters, Sky Sports and the recently-launched Disney-owned network ESPN, which shares the TV rights.

Even after this season’s addition of two Italian teams, the Celtic League remains the poor cousin, having suffered financially from the collapse of Irish network Setanta. In Munster, Leinster and the Neath-Swansea Ospreys, the league features three of Europe’s biggest hitters, but its inferior depth allows the bigger squads greater opportunity for rotation and more time to focus on preparing for the season’s showpiece, the European Cup.

Ulster, for so long regarded as Ireland’s ‘third province’, made a significant breakthrough this season. Though they had won the European Cup in 1999 – in the history of professional rugby that’s almost back in the Stone Age – they hadn’t got through the pool phase since.

This season has seen Ulster develop a harder and more physical edge, something that has been credited to the green and gold spine which runs through all three rows of the pack – BJ Botha, Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenburg and Robbie Diack – and to Pienaar at No 9 and, occasionally, 10.

It is no coincidence that the reason Pienaar chose Ulster ahead of other options was because of the established South African presence in Belfast.

‘Johann had already signed up and he mentioned to me that David Humphreys [the former flyhalf and now director of rugby] was looking for a scrumhalf and he asked me if I’d be prepared to talk to them. And it went from there.

‘I didn’t know much about Belfast before coming here so it definitely helped having a couple of South African boys at Ulster. Before I came I got a lot of good feedback from BJ who had been here for a while.’

Much has been made of Pienaar’s frustration about not playing as much as he would have liked back home at scrumhalf. Though as real as his commitment is to the No 9 jersey he is determined to counter suggestions that it is the reason he left.

‘Obviously I wanted to play more at scrumhalf and wasn’t getting too many opportunities. I won’t say I was frustrated but rather looking for something new and fresh where I would have the chance to have extended time at No 9. I’ve enjoyed it so far and am still happy with the decision I made.’

So, as the rugby cliché goes, is Pienaar a victim of his own versatility?

‘When you’re young you’re eager to play and, particularly for the Springboks, you’ll do anything just to be a part of the team.

As you get older, though, maybe it’s not the best thing in the world to be able to cover a couple of positions. I’d prefer to be playing No 9 more for the Boks but obviously it’s a privilege just to be part of it.’

One of Pienaar’s problems, of course, is that whenever he gets a 10 slapped across his back he has a knack of doing well. His Man of the Match performance on the Glasgow lido, for instance, was in the flyhalf role. That day the regular No 10, David Humphreys’ younger brother Ian, was injured.

The Pienaar-Humphreys combination has been a resounding success and one reason the Bok contingent has been extended the status of honorary Ulstermen. Indeed, it is a measure of the popularity of Muller, Wannenburg, Botha, Diack and Pienaar as well as the spread of South Africans across the globe these days that fans’ banners at their Ravenhill home games convey messages of support in languages other than the vernacular.

‘There are a couple of South African flags and Afrikaans banners floating around the stadium virtually every time we play so it’s good to see South Africans supporting and getting behind the team,’ Pienaar says.

In terms of developing his own game, Ulster has certainly played its part. In the past Pienaar’s goal-kicking and temperament have been criticised. But his form throughout Ulster’s European Cup run and nights like those in Glasgow show that he has developed a harder edge. Since being at Ulster he has played in snow for the first time and home games in the southern suburbs at Belfast offer a very different atmosphere to steaming afternoons alongside the Indian Ocean.

‘I didn’t know much about Ravenhill when I first went there,’ he says, ‘so it was quite an eye-opener, especially coming from Kings Park. There is always a great atmosphere – win or lose – at Ravenhill. The crowd and the noise make up for the things it lacks. It’s not the easiest place to play, particularly with the wind which is one thing you’ve got to adapt to. It can really blow you away sometimes.’

Pienaar has one more season left on his Ulster contract. So what then? Back home? Or what about France?

‘I had the option of going there last year,’ he says. ‘But just being married and asking my wife to go to a place where we don’t know the language would have been difficult for us. I’d love to maybe go there one day.

‘I’m definitely not throwing away the chance of going back home. I don’t know when it will be but I would definitely like to go back and maybe play for the Sharks again. I had a great time in Durban. We’ll see where the road takes us.’

– This article first appeared in the June issue of SA Rugby magazine. The July issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 22 June.
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