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'It’s a lot different to what Belfast was like' - Pienaar aiming to make an impression on return to Ireland

The Ravenhill favourite is settling into life with Montpellier, who face Leinster this weekend.

NOT LONG AFTER being forced to leave Ulster against his will, Ruan Pienaar will return to Ireland this weekend hoping to get the better of one of their biggest rivals.

The South African scrum half is part of an expensively-assembled Montpellier squad that will aim to set down an early marker in the Champions Cup when they face Leinster at the RDS on Saturday.

Ruan Pienaar with supporters after playing his final game for Ulster Ruan Pienaar with fans after his final Ulster game. Source: Presseye/Matt Mackey/INPHO

Pienaar, though, is still getting used to no longer being an Ulster player. Having become a talisman at Ravenhill during seven years there, he was informed last season that he would not be offered another contract. The IRFU wanted to give more playing time to local prospects in his position and the veteran had no choice but to leave his adopted home.

The 33-year-old has made a solid start in the French Top 14. Montpellier lie second in the standings and last month Vern Cotter, his new coach, said that it seemed like Pienaar had already been playing there for five years.

It takes only a couple of minutes chatting with Pienaar, however, to know that he really did mean it when he said he would have loved to have stayed in Ireland. The deep south of France is not a bad alternative but the forced departure from Ulster still hurts.

“Yeah it’s been OK,” he told The42 this week. “Obviously I think we do miss, as a family, Belfast. It’s become home for us the last few years. So I would lie if I didn’t say that we miss Belfast and being back there but so far it’s been an enjoyable experience.

“I think we’ve got a decent squad together and we’ve had an okay start to the season as well. It’s a lot different, I guess, to what Belfast was like but so far we’re surviving.”

Pienaar was a revelation at Ulster, helping them to become a consistent force at domestic and European level. The former South Africa international, his wife, and their son and daughter – aged three and five – will take time to move on from a memorable chapter in their lives.

“It was one of the highlights of my career,” he explains. “I never thought I would enjoy Ulster as much as I did. I loved playing for the club. I loved staying in Belfast. I’ve made really good friends – lifelong friends… so it was tough leaving Belfast and it was tough to hear the decision that I wasn’t allowed to stay. I think that feeling will probably stay with us.

“For me, my family comes first. I think as a family it probably would have been easier for us to stay in Belfast. When family gets involved, it’s always tough to make a big move like we had to do. I think especially with the kids, it makes it difficult to see them making such a big move after they’ve really enjoyed going to school in Belfast and the friends they’ve made.

“So it’s a big move and it hasn’t been easy making that jump. I think, for me, going into training and being busy all day with training and the rugby side of things, it’s easy enough. But for my wife and the kids it hasn’t been that smooth a transition of life in Belfast coming to France. I think Belfast will always have a special place in my heart.”

Ulster v Toulouse - European Champions Cup - Pool One - Kingspan Stadium Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The move to Montpellier was probably all the more unsettling initially given that Pienaar expected former Springbok coach Jake White to be in charge when he arrived. White was removed, though, and Cotter – whose Clermont sides had several epic encounters with Leinster over the years – took the reins after leaving his post as Scotland’s head coach.

Pienaar is enjoying life working with the New Zealander, however, and hopes to achieve ‘something special’ at his new club. Montpellier’s squad was already home to a clutch of his compatriots including Francois Steyn, who was sent off during their last meeting with Leinster in January.

France number eight Louis Picamoles has added more power following his switch from Northampton and Pienaar has another quality player directly alongside him. All Black fly half Aaron Cruden – last seen by Leinster fans grappling with the British and Irish Lions this summer – was another major close-season signing.

“I think he’s a world-class player,” Pienaar says of Cruden. “He’s shown that over the years in Super Rugby and for the All Blacks. I think for both us it’s just about finding our feet and seeing the structures they want to put in place and hopefully as a team to build on that and progress.

“It’s been really enjoyable to play with him and see how he thinks and how he likes to do things as well. We’re still in a phase where we’re starting to know each other – getting to know the way we play. Hopefully we can build a good relationship over the season and put some big performances in.”

On Saturday, Montpellier will expect to improve on last year’s corresponding fixture in the pool stage, when they lost 57-3 following Steyn’s early red card.

“It’s a funny one – I didn’t think I was going to go back and face a Pro14 team as quickly as this,” Pienaar says. “But obviously I’ve played against them plenty of times – I know what a quality team they are.

“They showed that again last weekend by beating Munster, which was a really good match to watch… so it’s going to be tough.

“I think the Montpellier team has still got a few nightmares of last season about that game but it hasn’t really been mentioned at all this week. It’s a new season and a new challenge and I think there’s a lot of new players in our squad that didn’t play in that game. It’s a big challenge first up but hopefully we can perform well and give them a go.”

Pienaar’s inside knowledge and experience will be key to Montpellier avoiding typical French travel sickness, as will the know-how of battle-hardened internationals like Cruden and Picamoles.

“Leinster plays with a lot of tempo and they like to speed the game up,” he says. “For me, being at Ulster and playing French sides before, that’s exactly what we would try to do as well because the French teams have really big guys.

“I think for Irish teams that are well organised and plan really well, they normally get to the last bit of the game and can put you under a lot of pressure. I think for us it’s just about making good decisions — playing a style that we know works for us.

“I think defensively we really need to be solid because Leinster can keep the ball for ages and build pressure. Obviously they’ve got Johnny Sexton, who’s a world-class player and makes good decisions under pressure. He runs the team really well. But there’s challenges all over the team.”

England v Barbarians - Old Mutual Wealth Cup - Twickenham New boss: Vern Cotter. Source: Paul Harding

Leinster, of course, stood between Pienaar and what would have been his crowning glory with Ulster. First there was the 2012 Heineken Cup final, when the underdogs were swept aside 40-8 by a blue swarm at the peak of their powers in the trophy-laden Joe Schmidt era.

Ulster had the chance to get their own back a year later in the Pro 12 final but – with Ravenhill being redeveloped – they missed out on having home advantage and Pienaar’s 18 points could not prevent Leinster winning 24-18 at the RDS.

“I think in 2012 no one expected us to go that far,” he recalls. “I think we just faced a really good competitive team that year. I think they were always going to be difficult to beat.

“I think the final [in 2013] was supposed to be on our home pitch and we took it to Leinster’s own field. I think that’s probably still something that Ulster will regret. But I mean they’re a quality team that are able to win these big games.

“They’ve been in plenty of finals and they don’t have so many trophies for nothing. They make good decisions. They’ve got good players that have been in those situations before and that’s what you need in these big games.

“So I think that looking back on my Ulster career that’s probably the one thing that was missing. But I think it’s not always meant to be. For both those finals, we just probably faced a better team and they deserved to win those games.”

In a familiar setting, albeit playing for a somewhat unfamiliar team, Pienaar will be hoping for a different outcome on Saturday.

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