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'You've got to respect the decision that David Nucifora made' - Ruan Pienaar

The 35-year-old is now back in South Africa after the IRFU performance director forced him to leave Ulster in 2017.

Updated Nov 28th 2019, 3:00 PM

HAD THINGS WORKED out the way Ruan Pienaar had wanted, he would be into the final seasons of his career with Ulster.

Having joined the northern province in 2010, the South African scrum-half became part of the furniture in Ulster, a much-loved figure amongst the supporters and a central figure in the team.

With his family loving life in Belfast, Pienaar hoped to finish out his playing days in the white jersey but the IRFU had different ideas.

ruan-pienaar-after-the-game Pienaar as he bid farewell to Ulster fans in 2017. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

The union’s performance director, David Nucifora, declined Ulster’s bid to re-contract Pienaar beyond the end of the 2016/17 season, keen as he was to see Irish-qualified players flourishing.

That intention has worked out well with John Cooney joining from Connacht to become a hugely influential man at scrum-half for Ulster, but it was a decision that deeply saddened Pienaar at the time, as well as enraging the province and their supporters.

Instead of being present at yesterday’s Guinness Pro14 media day at Cardiff City Stadium in Ulster gear, 35-year-old Pienaar was there as a Cheetahs player, having joined the club – based in hometown, Bloemfontein – on a two-year contract at the start of this season.

In between, Pienaar had two seasons with Top 14 club Montpellier that he did not enjoy.

Pienaar’s family moved back to Belfast for his second year with Montpellier, having disliked life in France, and his initial intention was to hang up his boots and join them before the Cheetahs came calling and the Pienaar clann shifted back to South Africa.

“If you had asked me 12 months ago, I would probably have been back in Belfast and probably have retired by now because France was an interesting experience… that’s a good way to say it,” said Pienaar yesterday in Cardiff.

Being close to family was one of the prime reasons Pienaar opted to return to South Africa. His sister, Rene, was sadly killed in a car accident in February, leaving behind her husband and two young children.

So Pienaar, his wife, and three kids packed their bags and returned home permanently.

“It’s nice to spend time with the family again and the kids have settled in nicely,” explains Pienaar. “As long as they’re happy, it makes it a lot easier as parents.

ruan-pienaar Pienaar at yesterday's Guinness Pro14 media day in Cardiff. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We had a tough start to the year with my sister passing away in the car accident, so that sort of prompted the decision of going back. Family has always been important to me and my wife, so it’s nice to go back to South Africa, to where I grew up and most of the family is still there.”

Pienaar remains in contact with plenty of good friends in Belfast and says there was some “good banter” exchanged before the Cheetahs’ Pro14 win over Ulster early last month.

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While he has moved on from being forced to leave Ireland, Pienaar remembers the frustration of 2017 when the IRFU ruled that Ulster could not re-contract him.

“It’s a tough one,” said Pienaar. “You can’t really say what you felt at the time but you’ve got to respect the decision that David Nucifora made.

“I guess at the time it would have been nice to finish my career at Ulster, but in a few years’ time I’ll sit down and think about my career and everything that happened, and you’ll think it wasn’t too bad.

“I had seven great seasons with Ulster and really enjoyed my time. It was very sad to leave there for me and the family. But it is what is it, you’ve got to move on. Somehow I’ve made my way back to South Africa, where I grew up and the team I supported when I was young. So it’s funny how things work out in life.

“You can plan how you want to but it doesn’t always work out that way.”

Pienaar thinks Cooney “has been brilliant” as his successor in Ulster’s nine shirt, praising his marshaling of the team and his goal-kicking, while also mentioning how Dave Shanahan has done well with his chances. 

The issue of Pienaar’s exit from Ulster is topical at the moment with Kiwi scrum-half Alby Mathewson having just left Munster despite the player wanting to stay and the province wanting to keep him in Limerick.

ruan-pienaar-with-his-son-jean-luc-and-daughter-lemay Pienaar with his son, Jean Luc, and daughter, Lemay. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The IRFU view was that extending Mathewson’s deal would limit playing opportunities for young Irish players and the New Zealander has had to move on. Pienaar sympathises with Mathewson.

“I can probably sense his frustration as well, I actually just heard about it yesterday,” said Pienaar. “He has been great when Conor Murray has been away, he’s probably been one of their best players and I’m sure that he’s enjoying Munster because it’s a great club to be involved with. I’m sure he will be very disappointed to leave the club.

“It’s a tough one because you get guys that really enjoy their time with clubs and they’ve performed well and then they’ve been asked to leave when they really want to stay. It’s a tough one but you probably can’t really argue as a player with that.”

While Mathewson spent just 15 months in Munster, Pienaar urged the IRFU to consider the people behind the player when making any similar decisions in the future.

“As adults and parents, you move on from it but when you have a young family that is happy and in a school and that have made friends, to tell them you have to leave is hard. It’s tough and we had to go through that.

“I had my family with me for one season in Montpellier and then they came back [to Belfast] for the second season because they didn’t enjoy it and my wife struggled. Going forward, it would be nice if they just think of the whole package. I know there are decisions to be made.

“It is probably business decisions but there is more than just the player. There is a person with a family that is happy and enjoying life and making a contribution. It’s tough if it is like that but I guess you have got to respect that and move on.”

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