Ulster star set move on retirement, leaving Belfast and Ireland’s South Africa tour

The former Springbok has taken up a youth coaching role in the Cheetahs’ set-up in Bloemfontein after a 20-year pro rugby career

It’s fourteen degrees outside and the rain trickles down my window like two dogs chasing one another. I ask Ruan Pienaar if he misses the Irish weather.

“Not really” is his response as he sits within the Cheetahs’ training hub. Bloemfontein may be in the depths of winter today, but it’s 18 degrees and sunny, Ravenhill seems a long way away, but for this adopted Ulsterman, it will always be in his heart.

It has been seven years since the IRFU made the baffling decision to move Pienaar on from the place where he believed he would see out his career.

The same amount of time that the South African graced these shores with a finesse and grace that is unlikely ever to be repeated on an Irish rugby pitch.

So, as time has ticked on, does the scrum-half’s time in Ulster now just feel like another period in a playing career that has spanned two decades and has only just ceased in May, at the ripe old age of 40?

“No, it’s so easy to answer, it was seven of the best years of my career.” He said.

“If I had had it my way that would have been the place I would have liked to have retired.

“So, I don’t just say that, I genuinely mean it. I had an amazing time, and unfortunately, you know the way I had to leave was really sad and I would have liked to continue there.

“In saying that, I went to Montpellier after that and I didn’t enjoy it that much…it was an interesting experience.” He smiled, as he reflected on his turbulent spell on the south coast of France.

With 88 Test caps to his name and a World Cup winner’s medal from 2007 to boot, the capture of Pienaar was arguably the greatest transfer that Ulster have ever managed. But, with fans fearing it may be a short-lived residency in east Belfast, it was the people living around the Pienaars that convinced them to stay on these shores, weather and all.

Ruan Pienaar walks out with his son Jean-Luc for the final Guinness PRO12 League clash between Ulster Rugby and Leinster Rugby at Kingspan Stadium, Ravenhill Park, Belfast on Saturday May 6 2017. Picture by John Dickson | www.dicksondigital.com

“As a player when you decide to leave, you leave everything behind including your family,” Pienaar said.

“But the way the people of Belfast opened their arms to us and looked after us.

“And thankfully the rugby part was great fun too we made a lot of friends too and some great memories.” He continued.

“I know the weather can be challenging, but they make it up with the people around there and it was a really special time.”

Pienaar has now hung up his playing boots but has wasted no time moving into a junior coaching role with his hometown side the Cheetahs, for whom his father also played for. Now that he is settled there would he rule out a return to Ulster at some point in the future?

“No, I think it would definitely be possible (to make a move if the request came).”

“Obviously I have just started, and coaching is way different to playing.

“So, I have got a lot to learn as a coach. I don’t even know if I am going to be a good coach yet. Getting guys to believe in your plan, how you treat people and all those things.”

“I know I’ve got a long road ahead, but if the call comes (from Ulster) it will definitely be something I will look at.”

Ruan Pienaar will also return for the Scotstoun tie, coming in at scrum-half

For a man that defined coolness personified on the pitch, it is unexpected to hear Pienaar talk of how he was crippled with nerves before games. Not so much out of nerves for his own performance but out of a fear of letting his teammates down.

Although now a fan rather than a player, he will still have a few butterflies when his beloved South Africa take on Ireland on the high veld at Pretoria’s iconic Loftus Versfeld Stadium, in the first of two tests this Saturday.

“It’s exciting! South Africa are back-to-back World Cup champions, and Ireland are viewed by many as the best team in the world at the moment, with the way they play and their consistency,” he said.

“I don’t think the game could have come at a better time, I think it’s going to be incredibly physical and intense.

“Teams find out coming to South Africa is not an easy place to come to and I think it could be a highly-tempered physical few test matches.”

South Africa manager Rassie Erasmus has stoked some fires this week, as is his way, by posting on social media about the Irish side. Pienaar believes this is perfectly typical of Erasmus and feels these are games used by each of the teams that only makes it even more of a mouthwatering event in the making.

“You know what, it feels like the last few days before a really big boxing match with the two guys shouting at one another.

“There are superb match-ups all over the park, if you look at the centres going head-to-head, Bundee [Aki] and De Allende for example, and these duels are all over the pitch, so it’s going to be huge.

“I think for Ireland, the big loss is Jamison Gibson-Park, who has been in phenomenal form, and it is going to be interesting if they go for Craig Casey or Conor Murray.” He said.

“My loyalties are with South Africa but I know what Ireland are about so it’s just too close to call.”

As our call comes to an end, I try one last time to sway Pienaar back to these shores, by seeing if he remembers our finest delicacies. I find out he is a fan of veda, soda bread and a good old Ulster fry.

As I hang up I feel satisfied that I have done my bit for the province and consider heating up the frying pan. There is hope our prodigal son will return!

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