GARETH DUNCAN looks at the Saffas who impressed in the first round of European Cup fixtures of the year.
When he was still based in South Africa, there was a forced expectation on Ruan Pienaar to excel at flyhalf, especially after his outstanding performance in the Springboks’ 42-6 win over England at Twickenham in 2008. This was despite the player’s known desire to play in his preferred position of scrumhalf. When the No 10 experiment had inconsistent results at national level thereafter (in match and kicking performance), Pienaar continued to feature elsewhere in the Bok backline except scrumhalf, as Fourie du Preez, Ricky Januarie and Francois Hougaard were ahead in the pecking order. Pienaar eventually lost his run-on spot and featured mainly off the Bok bench. Pienaar was also utilised at flyhalf for the Sharks in Super Rugby in 2009 and rotated between scrumhalf and pivot in 2010.
This mismanagement saw him make the move to Ulster in October 2010, where he has since thrived as a result of regular scrumhalf selection. His form for Ulster earned him a spot in the Bok World Cup squad last year, despite coach Peter de Villiers’ reluctance to pick overseas-based players.
Pienaar has continued his fine club form this season. While he has starred in general play, he’s been more consistent off the kicking tee since he left Durban with his latest display seeing him kick 21 points in Ulster’s 41-7 thumping English giants Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill. He slotted five penalties and converted all of his team’s three tries, while he also played a key role on attack behind a rampant pack. Skipper and lock Johann Muller (who made six tackles and won four lineout feeds), No 8 Pedrie Wannenburg (who made 10 tackles, won two lineout feeds and created two tries) and fullback Stefan Terblanche (who rushed 44m with ball in hand, completed four linebreaks and one turnover) also played their part in the victory.
Ulster now lead Pool 4, three points ahead of Clermont. The two clubs will face off on 21 January at the Stade Marcel Michelin with the winner securing the automatic quarter-final spot.
In other results, Saffa-laden Saracens delivered a strong team performance in their 20-16 win over Biarritz. Hooker John Smit, lock Mouritz Botha, No 8 Ernst Joubert and centre Brad Barritt all started in victory, with Barritt winning a vital 77th-minute penalty which midfield partner Owen Farrell converted. Botha, who gained 29m (the most by a forward in the match) and made seven tackles, and Joubert, who amassed 24m and completed five tackles, were top performers.
Front rowers Wian du Preez and BJ Botha were influential in Munster’s 26-10 win over prop Michael Coetzee and scrumhalf Rory Kockott’s Castres, with Du Preez crossing the chalk in the second half. Tighthead prop Brian Mujati also started his first match since his foot injury as Northampton Saints fought back from a 14-6 half-time deficit to beat Scarlets 29-17.
Inside centre Frans Steyn scored a try in his first start for Racing Metro since the World Cup, but it didn’t help as the French club lost 27-24 at home to Edinburgh. Tighthead prop Daniel Kotze delivered a strong performance in Clermont’s 82-0 thrashing of flyhalf Naas Olivier and lock Quintin Geldenhuys’ Aironi. Loosehead prop Gurthro Steenkamp started in Toulouse’s 24-3 over Connacht, while prop Daan Human and No 8 Shaun Sowerby came off the bench.