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Pienaar intent on enjoying remaining days in rugby after tragedy took him back to South Africa

The former Ulster legend will face the northern province in Bloemfontein today.

Pienaar lines up a kick against the Warriors last week.
Pienaar lines up a kick against the Warriors last week.
Image: Frikkie Kapp/INPHO

THERE STILL REMAINS some lingering hurt for Ruan Pienaar that he was forced to leave Ulster at the end of the 2016-17 season.

The 35-year-old South African scrum-half – who in 2010 was Ulster’s highest profile overseas signing – spent seven seasons in Belfast, even turning down a lucrative offer to join Toulon, such was his and his family’s fondness for the Northern capital.

But as he sought to spend out the remainder of his career with the Province, the IRFU refused Ulster an extension wanting to free a spot for an indigenous player to progress.

Pienaar did not hide the fact he was hugely disappointed by the decision, but he joined Top14 side Montpellier at the start of the 2017-18 season.

His family had remained in Northern Ireland, a strong hint he would return to live there at some point, but then the death of his sister Rene in a traffic accident in South Africa earlier this year changed things again.

Having returned to France following compassionate leave, Pienaar decided to leave Montpellier a year before his contract was due to end and return home to South Africa.

Being with family after the tragedy meant more to the affable Springbok and he is now set to finish his career there having joined PRO14 side The Toyota Cheetahs.

“If you had asked me less than a year ago what our future was going to be (I’d have said) it was going to be in Belfast,” Pienaar said this week.

“Things changed, unfortunately for us at the start of the year with my sister passing away in a motor car accident, that prompted a change in our thoughts and looking to coming back and spending more time with family here.

“I was probably at a crossroads in my career anyway, perhaps thinking about retiring. There had been enough disruption to my family at this stage and the family back home needed support and I wanted to be able to do that,” he added.

“We decided to give it a go. The opportunity to return home, play for the team I supported as a boy and be with the family after what had happened has been the right one.”

His time at Montpellier, he joined the Top14 side at the start of the 2017 season, was perhaps not always the happiest, although he did enjoy the rugby.

“It was an interesting time,” he said. “It was a bit of a shock when I first arrived there, and obviously I did not want to leave Ulster but had to in the end.

“It was tough, my wife and three kids were in Belfast, I was in France. I found that tough and they found it equally tough. It was a really frustrating time for us. It is really hard when your family are not totally happy.

“The rugby went okay we made it to the Top14 final, but unfortunately lost in my first season.

ruan-pienaar Pienaar kicks ahead against Toulon. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I had to compare it to my time in Ireland and unfortunately I had such a great time there and really missed it,” he added.

Pienaar was a World Cup winner with South Africa in 2007, and his form with Ulster saw him recalled to the Springboks side for two more World Cup campaigns.

It is no surprise that his return to South Africa has again brought success to the club he joined, the Cheetahs winning the Currie Cup.

“Obviously I managed to win the Currie Cup again, I last won it in 2008. It was a competition I always enjoyed watching, playing in,” he explained.

“There is a lot of history behind the tournament and it was nice to win it again.

“It was really enjoyable and we got off to a good start last week in the PRO14, winning 48-14 against Glasgow Warriors.

“I think at my age and at this stage of my career you just want to enjoy the rugby as much as possible and not put too much pressure on yourself or your performance.

“That is sort of the mind set I have at the moment, not to put too much pressure on myself in the way I perform, it is more than having fun and really enjoying my rugby.

“So far I must say I have enjoyed it. It is a good group of players here at the Cheetahs, they are all a lot younger than me, but it has been really enjoyable to still be able to play rugby and to enjoy it I guess.”

This evening (kick-off 17.15, eir Sport)  Pienaar will come up against the club he served so faithfully for seven seasons.

Ulster will have changed somewhat as a group since the emotional afternoon when he left Kingspan Stadium in June 2017, but there will still be some familiar faces in Bloemfontein this weekend.

“I am really looking forward to seeing the guys this weekend. Although the group has changed, there are still a lot of players I have played with so really looking forward to that.

“It will be strange to run out against them, I think it will be enjoyable at the same time. I am looking forward to catching up with everyone again.”

Fellow South African Marcell Coetzee has overcome injury to travel with the Ulster party, who will also meet The Isuzu Southern Kings a week later on their mini tour of South Africa, and there has been a surprise inclusion in Wiehahn Herbst, brought in on loan from The Bulls to cover their tighthead prop issues.

“I have been in touch now and again with the guys. It is good to see Marcell recovering from his ankle injury and Wiehahn has been playing well for The Bulls, and it will be good to catch up with him too,” added Pienaar.

ruan-pienaar-with-his-wife-monique-son-jean-luc-daughter-lemay-and-father-gysie-pienaar Pienaar with his wife Monique son Jean Luc, daughter Lemay and father Gysie on the day he bid farewell to the Kingspan. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The sides will meet again later in their Conference at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast and that is one fixture Pienaar is already looking forward to.

He said: “It will be strange going to the Kingspan and be great to get a run out at the Kingspan again, mixed emotions obviously.

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“I had an emotional goodbye a few years ago and I would have loved to finish my career there, but things just did not work out.

“Life – you can plan as much as you want to, but it can throw a curve-ball at you, and we have had that happen to us.

“But it will be great to go back to Belfast and play at the Kingspan. I have so many great memories from there.”

There will certainly be a huge welcome from the Ulster support for their former hero then, even if he produces a performance this weekend which helps the Cheetahs to a victory.

Cheetahs

15 Rhyno Smith
14 William Small-Smith
13 Benhard Janse van Rensburg
12 Dries Swanepoel
11 Anthony Volmink
10 Tian Schoeman
9 Ruan Pienaar (Capt.)

1 Ox Nche
2 Joseph Dweba
3 Erich de Jager
4 Sintu Manjezi
5 Walt Steenkamp
6 Gerhard Olivier
7 Junior Pokomela
8 Henco Venter

Replacements

16 Reinach Venter
17 Boan Venter
18 Neethling Fouche
19 JP du Preez
20 Sias Koen
21 Jasper Wiese
22 Tian Meyer
23 Louis Fouche

Ulster

15. Matt Faddes
14. Craig Gilroy
13. Luke Marshall
12. James Hume
11. Rob Lyttle
10. Bill Johnston 
9. John Cooney

1. Jack McGrath
2. Rob Herring (captain)
3. Tom O’Toole
4. Kieran Treadwell
5. Sam Carter
6. Matthew Rea
7. Sean Reidy
8. Greg Jones

Replacements:

16. John Andrew
17. Eric O’Sullivan
18. Ross Kane
19. Alan O’Connor
20. Clive Ross
21. David Shanahan
22. Michael Lowry
23. Louis Ludik

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About the author:

Richard Mulligan

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