GARETH DUNCAN looks at the Saffas who impressed in the leagues around the world over the weekend.
Last week, I headlined with scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar as he was pivotal in Ulster’s elevation on the Pro12 log and was considered a key player in their pursuit for a semi-final place in their dometsic and European Cup campaigns.
The former Sharks halfback this week again proved why he is an important figure in the Northern Irish club’s squad when he helped the team to a 22-16 win over props Wian du Preez and BJ Botha’s Munster in the European Cup quarter-final clash on Sunday.
Pienaar made a valuable contribution from the kicking tee as he slotted 14 points via a conversion and four penalties (the highest individual haul in the match). This included three long-distance goal attempts. The 28-year-old was also impressive in general play, making 14 tackles (without missing one), forcing three turnovers and providing quality ball for the backline behind a dominating pack.
Fullback Stefan Terblanche, lock and skipper Johann Muller and No 8 Pedrie Wannenburg also featured in the victory. Terblanche rushed 50m in total (the second highest by an Ulster player), while Muller (who made 17 tackles and won three lineout feeds) and Wannenburg (who made 13 tackles and won two lineout feeds) played crucial roles on defence and in the lineout battle.
Ulster will depend on their South African squad contingent, especially Pienaar, to play influential roles on the pitch as they head into a challenging month ahead. They face Connacht (14 April), Leinster (20 April) and Munster (5 May) in their final league fixtures as they chase a play-off spot in the Pro12, while they also tackle Edinburgh in Dublin in the European Cup semi-finals (28 April). It will be Ulster’s first showing in the European Cup last four since they won the competition in 1999.
In other European Cup quarter-final matches, reserve prop Daniel Kotze’s Clermont downed Saffa-laden Saracens 22-3 in Watford. Former Free State front-rower Kotze delivered a strong defensive performance off the bench in the second half, making 10 tackles.
While Saracens (who had seven Saffas in their match 22) disappointed at Vicarage Road, hooker Schalk Brits was the outstanding all-round performer for the English Premiership defending champions as he gained the most ground with ball in hand in the game (55m), made two offloads and beat two defenders, and forced two turnovers.
Hooker Richardt Strauss was solid in defending European Cup champions Leinster’s 34-3 win over the Cardiff Blues. Reserve prop Heinke van der Merwe played off the wood.
In the European Challenge Cup quarter-finals, former Sharks tighthead prop Eugene van Staden scored a telling try in Biarritz’s 26-23 win over the London Wasps.
Brive inside centre Riaan Swanepoel converted five penalties in his team’s 15-11 win over Scarlets. Outside centre Ronnie Cooke, tighthead prop Pat Barnard, reserve lock Retief Uys and replacement fullback Scott Spedding also made appearances for the victors.
Toulon captain Joe van Niekerk led his charges to a convincing 37-8 thrashing of current English Premiership log leaders Harlequins at the Stade Félix-Mayol, while lock Anton van Zyl continued his good form in Stade Francais’ 22-17 win over the Exeter Chiefs.