Scrumhalf Pienaar a rare blend of ice and fire-power
The classy Springbok will be a key man for Ulster in their Heineken Cup quarter-final against Saracens at Twickenham
Last year Saracens went for broke and took in the Oktoberfest in Munich. Drink together, suffer together, bond together. Last week it was Verbier’s ski slopes and a 10k toboggan run the players downed on sledges.
Twenty five others went paragliding and two went skiing. A dime a dozen ways to get hurt. The Daily Telegraph dared to call them modernists.
For Ulster minds, the imposing profile of Portora Royal School looking down from the rise coming out of Enniskillen did just fine this week for what Saracens call “edge”.
The road to Beleek, Ballyshannon and beautiful Bundoran ahead and the ghost of rugby-loving old Portoran Samuel Beckett, this was Ulster’s bonding party atmosphere; the fly fishing and golf accent of a Lough Erne resort and a 400- year-old school built by decree of England’s James I.
An unravelling season, Ulster were last week rescued by Leinster, enough at least to allow that Twickenham and the leading Premiership Club are not insurmountable obstacles on the road to what would be their second Heineken Cup semi-final in succession.
It’s a heady thought, one Saracens may now come to expect from the province we know that doesn’t do brash.
Even the big-name players Ulster brought in, Ruan Pienaar, John Afoa and Johann Muller, giants of the game who reinforce a sober image and from a distance at least, buttoned-up sensibilities.
From that we can believe that the cut glass, old school luxury on the shores of the Lough does just fine for Pienaar, the Ulster scrumhalf and included in the ERC’s longlist for this year’s European Player of the Year.
It’s the South African’s sort of place and this week even the sun shone for him. While everybody knows about Pienaar’s kicking, in Ravenhill it’s the calming presence he will bring to Twickenham, that and a dispassionate eye.
The one player who will not be spooked by Saracens’ audacious streak is Pienaar.
The squad names, familiar all of them, roll off his tongue with a smile. Neil de Kock, John Smit, Schalk Brits, Petrus du Plessis, Justin Melck.
“Yeah, I know most of them,” he says. “I played with a couple of them. It’s going to be good fun. A couple of years back it was an option [to go to Saracens] but nothing ever came of it.”
There were few doubts when Pienaar was young. In primary school his decision was to be a rugby player. That was that. Life was sweet in Bloemfontein and rugby’s prestigious finishing school, Grey College, knocked off some edges, refined others. He played there with future ’Bok Bismarck Du Plessis and got noticed.
There were trials. He was the smallest on the team so outhalf and fullback gave way to nine.
A hostage to DNA, he had little choice as his father was the Springboks fullback Gysie Pienaar. Maybe he should have known he’d grow. More Rob Kearney than Peter Stringer, he is at 6ft 2ins, the modern nine.
“I watched tapes of him,” he says of his father. “I was four years old, I think, when he retired so I can’t remember him play. But I’ve watched tapes of the teams he played in. Maybe after school I’d watch the Tests when he played for the Free State. Yeah, I watched a lot of tapes.
“He has never said ‘play in this position’, ‘this is your best position’. He always supported me and gave me advice when I needed it. For me that has been a great relationship with my dad. He never put any pressure on me. I’m fortunate.”
Desire to play
The desire to play has not thinned. But Pienaar’s willingness to wear the Springbok jersey has impacted on his winter game. Ulster are aware their star player has been riding a never ending merry-go-round for the last three years.
Slow, soft pitches in the wet Northern Hemisphere, chased down with international matches over the summer in the Rugby Championship have had an accumulating, erosive effect.
More mental than physical, earlier this season the sheen left Pienaar’s game. He was reaching but couldn’t touch performance levels he had expected.
“It is [stressful]. I think this season is maybe the first where mentally, I was a little bit off,” he says.
“I felt tired and I felt it got to me. Obviously, I want to be involved in the national side but at the same time I want to do well for Ulster.
“I felt earlier in the season my form wasn’t as well as I would have liked it to be. I thought I could be a lot better. But mentally, I felt a bit tired. Some weeks I just didn’t feel up to it.
“I think your mind needs time off. You are always training, playing, working to a schedule . . . you need time away, away from everyone to do your own thing. I haven’t been able to that in the last couple of years so . . .”
Leinster last week drew the first green shoots from him. The Ulster dugout noticed. They saw more energy from him, more willingness to go forward. He began to snipe around the fringes more, using his fullback physique to keep the Leinster defence occupied in field and deny them the width they would have liked.
The only overseas player to be selected for South Africa’s opening match against Argentina last summer, Pienaar may have started on the bench to the preferred Francois Hougaard but his ability to make himself invaluable and consistently make serious contributions and shape outcomes has always percolated through.
Crucial to Ulster
It’s crucial to Ulster that he does it today.
“Ruan’s skill set is second to none,” says assistant coach, Neil Doak. “Kicking out of hand and at goal he’s phenomenal. When you are this stage of the competition you need big players on top of their game. Last week against Leinster I felt he started to break a little bit more. That’s something he needs to try and keep doing, keep challenging around the fringes.
“If he can do that it will give us some softer shoulders in better positions. He needs to keep looking at those opportunities to make some breaks because if the nine is a threat it will keep people honest around those ruck areas.
“It’s hard to say that we’re going to break off this or off that. It’s the player’s instinct if he feels the shoulders have turned around and he can get through that inside gap.
“It’s hard to know what they will do. Neil de Kock [Saracens scrumhalf] is pretty tenacious. He’ll try and put Ruan under a fair deal of pressure. We’ll have to make sure we’ve blockers in place and not get harassed.
“If de Kock can get in there he will try and disrupt. But it was pleasing to see Ruan do that break at the weekend. His calmness and presence is also pretty key for us.”
There are common words used to describe Pienaar: Pedigree. Unflappable. Game Breaker. Athlete. Footballer. Vision. Style. Class. World Class. The regular church-goer smiles and throws it all back. Humble. There’s another.
But he has a stainless steel backbone. He knows the breadth of his ability and that supplies confidence.
Gentleman. Modest. Role Model. Positive words follow him. It takes little for him to be courteous and respectful but he allows life the time to be that way. It’s also a given he will rip your heart out in a match because that means something else again. Honesty.“Ruan is world class isn’t he?” Ulster coach Mark Anscombe rhetorically asks. “He’s got a great kicking game, as good as any scrumhalf in the world. He’s got such long levers and such good distance. He’s played against the best in the world. He’s played against dominant forward packs.
“He isn’t a big talker but he is a calm head. He doesn’t let the occasion or moment phase him and that can rub off on people. He brings a bit common relaxation. Normally a great hallmark of his game is when to pass, when to kick, when to run, his selection of choice.
“He’ll encourage Jacko [Paddy Jackson], which he does, and when something goes wrong dismiss it.”
There’s ice in his veins and Ulster rely on him to keep his steady hand on the Jackson tiller. A hybrid game of scrumhalf with outhalf applications, he’s a comfort blanket to the 21-year-old. Jackson can micro manage his own game with the Springbok sweating strategy, territory and probably the place kicks, his long boot giving him a distance of 10 to 15 metres outside most ranges.
“He was only 20 years old when he started,” Pienaar says of Jackson. “There are pressures and he made mistakes. But that is part of the game. You never play a perfect match. I like to take a bit of pressure off him. But he has a good head. He’s a killer player and I’m sure he’s just going to get better and better.”
Five Star, Blue Chip. De Luxe.
Former Springboks captain and Saracen prop Smit has loyally brought another label to the table.
At Portora Royal and the sweeping fairways of the venue for the next G8 summit it seemed more smouldering than naked. But for Twickenham, 45,000 people, and a semifinal reward, you’d bet Pienaar can do dangerous too.