RYAN VREDE, in Dublin, writes Ruan Pienaar needs to make the transition from a highly competent Test player to a dominant one.
Being in Dublin this week has given me a sense of Pienaar’s standing in the game in this country, a level of appreciation earned through consistent outstanding performances for Ulster.
The country’s major newspapers have carried a piece relating to his potential threat to Ireland since Friday last week. The exaltation of Pienaar’s technical skill has usually been preceded by lavish praise for Ireland players and coaches. Andrew Trimble, Pienaar’s club team-mate, called for a purposeful targeting of Pienaar in a bid to unsettle a player he described as ‘… the most relaxed man I’ve ever met. He continued, saying: ‘He does the right thing 99% of the time.’
Ireland kicking coach Mike Tainton was even more liberal with the plaudits. ‘I was up in Ulster a few weeks ago doing a session with Paddy Jackson and he joined in and just watching him doing his drills and his dedication to what he is doing is fantastic. There’s no doubt that he is one of the best in the world,’ he said.
Newspaper journalists and columnists (former players included) have extolled his value to Ulster, for whom he is considered the key player, and warned of the terminal effects letting him find his groove for the Springboks could have for their countrymen. There is a sense of disbelief that he isn’t taking the goal kicks at the Aviva on Saturday, such has been his accuracy in the domestic competition and European Cup.
Tellingly Pienaar has often produced his best Ulster performances under extreme pressure. This wasn’t always the case. While still in South Africa, privately his coaches and senior Sharks and Springbok team-mates often voiced their concerns about his temperament under pressure. He had to start well, they said, or you would invariably find that he would be a non-factor.
Yet you cannot underestimate the damage the positional merry-go-round he was subjected to had on his development. He was still in his formative years as a professional, and an exceptional gift that should have been nurtured was instead nuked by coaches that engineered his demise while each believing they were doing no damage.
Moving to Ulster saved Pienaar’s career. I make this assertion with unwavering confidence. Deeply embedded psychological wounds healed there and slowly Pienaar started to rediscover the form which would later entrench him as the crowd favourite at Ravenhill and arguably the finest club scrumhalf in Europe. The sense here is that Ulster are a significantly weaker side without Pienaar.
Now, having seen off the challenge of Francois Hougaard, been promised positional stability with the Springboks and playing behind powerful pack, Pienaar needs to become to the national side what he is for Ulster.
Some players’ ceiling is elite-level club competitions, not so Pienaar. He lacks no technical gift and appears to have added mettle to his armoury. Fourie du Preez’s shadow still looms and will as long as Heyneke Meyer continues to publicly pine after his services. But Pienaar is a worthy replacement, capable of genius feats in the manner Du Preez was famous for.
Those pointing to the fact that Pienaar has already played 60 Tests and therefore has very little growth potential are wrong. A large percentage of those matches have seen him deployed at flyhalf, wing, centre or fullback. It is a sad indictment on his previous Springbok coaches that he is probably the world’s least experienced 60-cap veteran when measuring him in experienced gained in his preferred position (32 Tests as a scrumhalf but most of those as a replacement where he played 15 minutes or less).
There’s a new plane of existence waiting for Pienaar to explore. How fitting it would be if he starts living in that zone, one that sees him become a dominant Test player, in the country that has given him back his love for the game.