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'As players, we’re annoyed. We don’t understand the decision'

Luke Marshall said Ulster’s squad have frustrations over Ruan Pienaar being forced to leave by the IRFU.

LUKE MARSHALL SAYS the Ulster squad remain frustrated by the IRFU’s controversial decision not to allow Ruan Pienaar to remain with the province beyond the end of the season.

The South African scrum-half had been very keen to remain with Ulster into next season but the union blocked the province’s move to re-sign him.

Ruan Pienaar after the game Pienaar shed tears in Belfast on Saturday evening. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

33-year-old Pienaar said an emotional goodbye to the Kingspan Stadium on Saturday, setting up a try in a 17-13 win over Leinster and shedding tears post-match as his family joined him on the pitch.

Speaking after the game, Ulster centre Marshall paid tribute to the departing Pienaar – who will join Montpellier – and shared the Ulster players’ ongoing frustration over the IRFU’s decision.

“As players, we’re annoyed,” said Marshall. “We don’t understand the decision, to be honest. I suppose we can’t air our frustrations too much against our employers, but I can totally understand the supporters’ feelings.

“Our inconsistencies as a team, coupled with losing a big player. You see how loyal those fans are, a dead-rubber game and it’s still a sell-out crowd. They’re incredible. Certainly for me that’s one thing that’s been difficult this season, seeing the supporters frustrated and knowing at times that we let them down.

“That’s not the intention, we’re going 100% each week, but we’re certainly determined to get some silverware for them to reward that loyalty.”

The anger among Ulster fans over the Pienaar saga remains strong, and Marshall stressed just how much value the experienced scrum-half has added to the environment in the northern province.

“When we signed Ruan, where we were as a team, the team lifted,” said Marshall. “You look at how the young guys came on with him. It’s hard to ignore Paddy Jackson, playing by his side, who is now a world-class out-half.

“Myself, I’m not playing right beside him, but he’s had a massive impact on my career and various other guys who are coming through.”

Ruan Pienaar says goodbye to the fans after the game Pienaar leaves the field at Kingspan Stadium. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

The news of Pienaar being forced to leave was confirmed on the eve of the current season and Ulster have gone on to struggle on the pitch.

However, Marshall rejected the notion that Pienaar’s situation had had a negative effect on Ulster’s mentality.

“I can’t speak for other guys, but for me it was a motivating factor to cap his last season off,” said the Ireland international midfielder. “We can’t use that as an excuse, but it’s certainly very frustrating.”

Pienaar has played more than 130 times for Ulster since joining in 2010 and has been hugely influential for the province, both on and off the pitch.

His family have made Belfast their home, and their attachment to the city is deep enough that they plan to move back to Ireland after Pienaar’s time in Montpellier, with the possibility of the 33-year-old eventually coaching in Ulster.

The IRFU’s decision not to allow him to stay next season was first revealed in August of last year, and was met with uproar in Ulster. Speaking at the time, Pienaar underlined that he had attempted to remain.

“I am not moving on for a new adventure or for financial reasons – I wanted to stay and I know that Ulster Rugby did everything it could to keep me in Belfast,” said Pienaar.

IRFU performance director David Nucifora was defended the union’s position, pointing out that they need more Irish-qualified scrum-halves to come through the system.

“The IRFU recognises the contribution that Ruan Pienaar has made to Ulster Rugby over the seven-year period he will have been with the province,” said Nucifora.

“However, the IRFU informed Ulster Rugby during the 2015/16 season that it would not sanction a further extension of his contract.

“It is vital for both Ulster and Irish rugby that the province develops indigenous talent in this position and an extension of Ruan’s contract would further prevent Irish-qualified Ulster players from maximising their developmental potential and becoming stars for both Ulster and Ireland,” said Nucifora.

Ulster have signed Irish scrum-half John Cooney from Connacht to fill Pienaar’s boots next season.

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