JON CARDINELLI writes that strong performances in the next two matches will ensure that Ruan Pienaar travels to the World Cup as more than just a utility player.
The final trial. This is how several World Cup hopefuls will view the Tri-Nations tournament. There’s little chance of a Springbok B side travelling to Australasia and knocking over the hosts, but there’s a good chance that those in contention for the World Cup will sway the selectors through a couple of impressive showings.
Peter de Villiers hasn’t picked a side that can win in Sydney or Wellington, but he has selected a group of individuals that will be determined to prove a point. It was much the same in 2009 when the dirt-trackers played Leicester and Saracens. Synergy was a problem and ultimately cost those South African teams, but there were a few individuals that made a statement.
Pienaar must be eyeing the upcoming matches as a springboard to World Cup selection. Indeed he would prove a valuable asset given his ability to play more than one position, but he will want to make full use of this opportunity to convince the Bok management that he’s a quality alternative to Du Preez.
A move to Ulster in September 2010 seemed to signal the end of his Test career. At the time, Pienaar told me that he was fed up with being viewed as a jack of all trades and a master of none, and that playing for Ulster would afford him more opportunities in his preferred position.
Little did he know that two months later he would be representing the Boks on their tour of the home nations, and starting at No 9.
Injuries to Du Preez and Ricky Januarie forced the Bok selectors to think outside the box, and the fact that Pienaar was already playing in Europe counted in his favour. Francois Hougaard hadn’t done badly in the 2010 Tri-Nations, but De Villiers and company recognised the need to pick a scrumhalf with a skill set suited to northern hemisphere conditions.
Pienaar played a big part in all three of the Boks’ tour wins and De Villiers later admitted that he should have started him against Scotland. After a disappointing Tri-Nations where the Boks tried to force Hougaard and Januarie to fit the Du Preez mould, they had found a like-for-like replacement in Pienaar.
Du Preez will be one of the most important players at the World Cup, but the Boks need somebody in reserve that can offer the same sort of tactical options. Pienaar’s distribution and decision-making will lend the Boks’ impetus on attack, while his formidable kicking game will be useful in the context of the Bok game plan.
In theory, Pienaar is a similar player to Du Preez and would prove a perfect understudy at the World Cup. But there are many people out there, De Villiers included, who may need further convincing. Saturday’s game against the Wallabies represents the first of two final opportunities to convert the doubters.
The odds are certainly against the 27-year-old. The Boks took a pounding at the collisions in last year’s away Test against Australia, and on that occasion, Pienaar was the man in the No 9 jersey. He struggled behind a losing pack on that occasion, and is unlikely to receive a much better platform when a mix-and-match pack fronts the Wallabies this weekend.
Regardless of the pressure, he needs to show the selectors that he had the necessary composure and decision-making ability to be an asset to the Boks. South Africa may lose the next two Tests, but through his individual performances, Pienaar can win.
It seems unfair to judge Pienaar in this situation just as it was unfair to judge him when his forwards were pummelled last year in Brisbane. But given that it’s the only real opportunity he will receive prior to the World Cup, he will need to make it count.