Ruan Pienaar (file photo.) Frikkie Kapp/INPHO
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'We do miss everyone here, we miss Belfast' - Pienaar speaks out ahead of return with Cheetahs

The scrum-half speaks to The42 ahead of the Pro14 clash between sides old and new.

“I MUST SAY, the last three years haven’t been easy.”

It’s the question that Ruan Pienaar knew was coming, for he was never getting away on his return to Ireland without being asked about his enforced departure in 2017. And when he is asked what his opinion is on it now, he’s unequivocal in his response.

It’s a road we’ve been down before, both when it happened and many times since. Pienaar has done media duties since leaving Ulster three years ago, speaking about IRFU high performance director David Nucifora’s decision not to renew his contract at Kingspan Stadium before. But now he’s back in the friendly confines of Belfast, there’s an added emotion to the response, and understandably so.

After all, it wasn’t his decision. The perception of choice was taken out of his hands. The hope of another deal with the province he had so loyally and willingly adopted as his second home never amounted to physical evidence. Now, his time with Ulster is only memories.

The former Springbok No.9, standing at Ulster’s old training base at Newforge in Belfast, where current side the Cheetahs will train all week ahead of Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 meeting at Kingspan Stadium, points towards the end of the paddock towards a shed that houses a makeshift gym where Ulster used to train.

He reminisces about weekly sessions in there with the rest of the squad. Team meetings in the upstairs conference room. The drive from his nearby house – which he and wife Monique still own, despite having not lived in Northern Ireland as a family for so long – in the pouring rain for training.

“I can’t believe time has flown so quickly,” he says with a pained smile. “It brings a lot of nice memories back.”

This week Pienaar will allow himself reminisce as much as he can without hindering his approach to the weekend’s game, a rather crucial one in the context of the PRO14.

He’s got plans in the pipeline to meet up with some former team-mates, with Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave and Chris Henry’s names down in the diary. He’s planning on treating some of his Cheetahs team-mates to a round of golf during their down-time later in the week. No doubt there’ll be a stop at a local coffee establishment. Or two.

After all, it’s not often he gets to come back to Belfast. While wife Monique and their three children returned to their home while Pienaar saw out the remainder of his contract in Montpellier, the scrum-half himself hasn’t been back in a professional capacity since his last game against Leinster back in May 2017.

“I’ve only been here two days but I’ve already bumped into a few people. It’s always nice to chat to the locals, they’re very appreciative of the team and wish us well. It shows the type of people here,” he says.

“My wife is very jealous I get to come to Belfast, they miss the place.”

Understandably so, given what has happened in the interim. And it is for that reason that the 35-year-old says the last three years haven’t been easy.

The news that he couldn’t stay in Ulster, a place that he wanted to make his permanent home and retire at, was a bombshell, and plans had to be made for a life beyond Belfast, ultimately leading him to a deal with Montpellier. That meant relocating his young family to France and saying goodbye to the friends made in Ireland.

The move to the south of France proved ill-fated, his family unable to settle and moving back to Northern Ireland shortly into his stint in the Top 14. Then came the devastation of the death of his sister Rene, who was killed in a car crash back in South Africa in February 2019, which prompted his move back to Bloemfontein with the Cheetahs to be closer to his family.

Even after they moved back to South Africa, things were still difficult. Wife Monique’s sister was diagnosed with cancer, putting further strain on the wider family circle, while Pienaar’s young children were having to settle into their third school in as many years.

“The last three years haven’t been easy,” he repeats.

“I think we’re finding our feet now a little bit, it’s only been seven months since we’ve been back. It’s been an interesting few years. If you’d asked me, I would have liked to have retired here, but it wasn’t to work out that way, and I think that’s the way life works sometimes.

“(My family) have adapted well in South Africa, the kids are settled in school. That’s all we really want, the kids to be happy, it makes my job a lot easier.

“Now I get to play for a team that I grew up supporting and I’ve had a lot of fun the last few months. I’ve been privileged to be part of a Currie Cup winning team as well, it was special to come back home and win a trophy with so much tradition behind it.

“It’s nice to spend more time with my wife’s family and cousins, but we do miss everyone here, we miss Belfast.”

ruan-pienaar-waves-goodbye-to-the-ulster-fans-after-the-game Pienaar waves an emotional farewell to Ulster in 2017. Presseye / Darren Kidd/INPHO Presseye / Darren Kidd/INPHO / Darren Kidd/INPHO

He was close to coming back, too, with the potential of a return floated only a year after he’d left. The idea was he would provide cover for his replacement John Cooney who, at that time, had not yet hit the heights of the player he is now – one which, begrudgingly to many Ulster fans, proves that the IRFU were perhaps correct in jettisoning Pienaar in the first place.

Ultimately, the talk proved to be nothing more than that. Pienaar, however, never got his hopes up.

“There was a little bit of talk about it but I think it was always going to be difficult,” admits Pienaar. “The decision was made. I’m not going to mention names, but probably he was always going to stick with it. That was disappointing but it is what it is. You have to move on and make the best of it.”

And what of the future? Pienaar’s initial plan had been to retire in Northern Ireland. Is that still the case now he’s back living in South Africa?

“I’ve still got a house here, so we can always come back, but we’re giving South Africa a full go of it as long as we can,” he reveals. “We always feel like we’ll end up back here in the future but we’re not sure. We definitely wouldn’t mind if something like that was on the cards in the future.”

For now, he’s on the opposite side. While the terraces at Kingspan Stadium will likely sing their prodigal son’s praises before the game begins, once he crosses the whitewash and onto the pitch for the start of the game, Pienaar will be public enemy number one for the next 80 minutes, and he knows it.

He’s watched Ulster with envy, wishing he could be part of what Dan McFarland is cultivating at the province, while also loving being part of a reinvigorated Cheetahs side, of which he is the battle-hardened, experienced fulcrum as both scrum-half and captain.

The two collide in what is a crucial Conference A clash on Saturday, Ulster trying to bounce back from last week’s shock reverse at the Ospreys with a victory that will keep their South African opponents at bay, the Cheetahs trying to close the six-point gap between the two teams in second and third.

“It’s important for both teams. We’re sitting second and third, so whatever happens on Saturday will be very important for both teams,” acknowledges Pienaar, who started the reverse fixture in Bloemfontein back in October, which the Cheetahs dominated 63-26.

“For us, we know – and I know especially – how difficult it is to come to Belfast and win a game against Ulster, who have been in great form the last couple of months. It’s a big test for our young group and we’re going to have to go to a place like Kingspan Stadium and soak up an atmosphere that’s very different to what we’re used to.

“It’s exciting for this group and hopefully we can play the brand of rugby we enjoy playing and put up a good performance against a good Ulster team.”

But for one week, and one week only, Pienaar will allow himself to stop, look around and soak in what once was before switching back into his steely, ice-cool game focus. He’ll remember the great nights he had there, the big wins, the friendships forged and that emotional conclusion. In one moment, it will all come flooding back to him.

In another life, things might have been different and this would never have happened. Pienaar could still be Ulster’s talismanic scrum-half, still one of the fan favourites and leading the new wave of talent at the province. He might even be preparing for life beyond the rugby pitch in Ireland, whatever that may hold, as his plans had been before he left.

As it is, he’s just happy to be here one more time, and he’s going to make the most of every single second.

He smiles warmly, before finishing: “It will be great to go back, I never thought I would get the opportunity to play there again. It will be nice. It’ll be strange going to a different changing room and running out for a different team.

“But I’m really looking forward to it.”

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