Ruan Pienaar says that his stint in Ireland with Ulster has improved him as a player, with his temperament in particular benefiting significantly.
Pienaar’s ability to handle the heat associated with elite-level rugby has long been the primary criticism of him. Superlative at times when the stakes were lower, Pienaar was perceived to have a propensity for folding under sterner examination. Some of his team-mates and coaches even expressed that concern in private discussions, detailing their reservations based on their close interaction with him.
However, the positional uncertainty he had to endure during his time in South Africa undoubtedly contributed to this. And having established himself at scrumhalf for Ulster, Pienaar has thrived against the northern hemisphere’s elite, establishing himself as one of the leading players in his position in Europe.
Having been handed an opportunity to establish himself in his preferred position with the Springboks, Pienaar has shown glimpses of the immense promise he exhibited as a youngster at the Sharks. Most importantly, he has looked composed, and, at times commanding, against the world’s best players in the Rugby Championship.
‘I’d like to think my temperament has improved. It is a big decision for me to make that move. I was totally out of my comfort zone. Playing conditions are also a lot worse, but I’ve learned through that. I’ve tried to work on a lot on specifics for a nine, which wasn’t possible before I left because I played all over the place,’ he said.
‘You get days when it will go well and days where it won’t. I’ve always enjoyed playing under pressure. The challenge is negotiating it successfully by making the right decision in that situation.’
He added that he is determined to entrench himself in the position after years of being compromised by the tag of utility player.
‘I’ve really enjoyed this run. The momentum from the forwards has made it easier for me,’ he said. ‘I’ve competed against some good nines in the past. I’ve also said that my confidence would benefit from an extended run and that’s what I’m getting now. Hopefully I can convince the coaches of my value.’
With Johan Goosen not expected to recover from a heel injury sufficiently to take the goal kicks at Soccer City against the All Blacks on Saturday, Pienaar is likely to take the responsibility. He said he kicked at ‘about 80%’ for Ulster last season, which bodes well for the Springboks.
‘It didn’t go that well last Saturday [he missed four], but I also haven’t kicked in those sorts of pressure situations since my season ended at Ulster. I need to get back in the groove again, so hopefully it goes well. I had a good season with the boot with my club and I’d like to continue in that vain. We aren’t happy with that aspect of our game,’ he said.
With the Blacks renowned for their potency from broken field, there will also be additional pressure on him to excel in his tactical kicking game.
‘If you are going to kick poorly on them, they will punish you. They have great finishers – Israel Dagg, Julian Savea, all those guys can hurt you from their 22m. So you have to pin them down in their territory and back your defensive line. From there we are going to be asked to make a lot of tackles and blunt their momentum. Our defence has been good, but it will have to step up against them,’ he said.
By Ryan Vrede, in Johannesburg