Former Ulster and South Africa player Ruan Pienaar has been back home in Bloemfontein for three years after a difficult spell at Montpellier.
Despite its beauty, the south of France never once felt like home. The barriers in language and culture were too much for the South African and his family to surmount.
At 38, he arrives at the Free State Cheetahs training ground with a smile on his face and is enjoying his rugby at the club he grew up supporting as a boy. He knows that time is running out on his playing career, and he is determined to relish every last moment on the field.
His children love seeing their grandparents, and the winter weather is 20 degrees and sunny. Life is good, but the veteran scrumhalf still thinks about his former life in Belfast.
Pienaar left Ulster for Montpellier in 2017 due to the IRFU’s succession policy. He did everything in his power to stay in Belfast, but it wasn’t possible.
Today, he understands the logic behind the decision that ultimately allowed John Cooney to flourish in his old number nine Ulster jersey, but it doesn’t stop him from missing his old life in Belfast.
“I guess I am at peace with it now. I think you’ve gotta move on and get over it, but it is still tough to watch Ulster play at the Kingspan Stadium and I would’ve loved to stay there and finish my career there, that was always the plan.
“I speak about it a lot with my wife, and we watch Ulster play over here, and everything’s so familiar with the fans and the vibe before the game. I just imagine what it would be like being there, so yes, that’s hard. I would have loved to have still worn that jersey and finished my career there.”
Pienaar won 88 caps for the Springboks and returned to South Africa regularly for Tests and training camps. Yet, returning home for good after nine years in Ireland and France provided a reverse culture shock for him and his family that he hadn’t initially contemplated. The incredible natural beauty and warmth of South Africa has been coupled with challenges.
“Yeah, it has been a bit of an eye-opener. Obviously, I was away abroad for such a long time and there are a lot of things that have changed. Safety is a big factor and we live in a security complex.
“We have got guards and fences and stuff, which we didn’t have in Belfast. Obviously, you’ve gotta be careful with the kids. Poverty is really high at the moment and there are political problems. So I think there are negatives, but you still get really good people. Obviously, the weather is nice and it’s a beautiful country with good food.
“There are still a lot of positive things, but yeah, you do miss everything working, everything being on time, everything being clean and safe. So I mean the longer you stay here, the more you think about that and also where your kids will have the best chance and the best future. So all of those things will definitely have an impact on our decision in the next couple of years of whether we stay or come back. We’ll see.”
When Pienaar originally arrived in Belfast in 2010, he admitted to knowing almost nothing about the culture or the history of the city. He took a leap of faith with Ulster, and slowly he and his wife Monique fell in love with their life there.
Pienaar adapted quickly to the change in climate, and became a favourite for fans on the terraces, while his wife built a strong group of friends that continues today.
Pienaar had grown up as the son of former Springbok Gysie Pienaar, and had lived and breathed rugby his whole life. He found a different rugby culture in Belfast that he immediately loved.
“I just think people over in Belfast as fans just have a lot of respect in how they deal with you as a player. Here in South Africa, sometimes fans are that bit more direct, and they figure they can say whatever they want to you and you know, that gets to some players.
“I remember times with Ulster where I thought I had a shocker and people were coming up to me afterwards and saying well done, well tried and we might have lost by 20 points. And I was like, did we just watch the same game? But that says everything about their warmth as people. They’ve got so much respect and also for your family as well, where I think they just want you to know that you are always welcomed.”
Pienaar recently signed a contract extension at the Cheetahs that will see him retire in the city where he started playing rugby at school. He watched the Irish series victory against New Zealand and has taken inspiration from the performances of Johnny Sexton.
Pienaar may not be playing for the Springboks anymore, but believes watching Sexton’s ability to turn out world-class performance at the end of his career provides lessons for him in the South African Currie Cup.
“I think the longer I’ve played, the more I’ve tried to enjoy it. I used to put too much pressure on myself in my earlier years and I’d worry about what other people thought about my performances, whereas now I just want to play and make a difference within the team.
“The thing is, you realise your time is getting less and less, but yeah, I still feel I’m competitive. I still like to train and to plan well and then hopefully, you do all of that to get a good result at the end of the week. I think you see that with Johnny Sexton as well with the way he’s led the Irish team, and I think he’s only two years or three years younger than me [it’s actually 16 months] and he’s still playing some of his best rugby. You can see what a competitor he is and how he’s driving the team to new levels.”
Pienaar still enjoys close friendships with many of his former Ulster teammates including Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe and visits them in Belfast as much as possible.
He has seen Bowe and Trimble transition from rugby successfully into careers in business and broadcasting but knows that when he finishes playing for the Cheetahs, his next step will be to go into coaching. Whether that is with Ulster, or in South Africa, Pienaar has no idea.
“We would love to go back there to Belfast one day, but when that will be, we are not sure. I would love in the future maybe to get involved there [in coaching], but then again, you, you don’t know what the road has in store for us . . .
“I would really like to give coaching a go, I grew up watching my Dad so I was always next to the pitch when they trained and after when he coached. I’ve done this now for so many years now that I do feel like I would like to give something back.
“Now in the latter stages of my career, I have really tried to look at our coaches’ approach and their training sessions, the way they speak to players, and get them to react to things. I’m fascinated by how you can get the best out of players.”
Pienaar has an insatiable appetite to learn more about the game that he has devoted his life to, and studies rugby around the world. He specifically admires the culture of certain teams, and how their treatment and preparation of players have led to continued success.
Ronan O’Gara’s success as a coach has provided him with a clear blueprint of what is possible in the transition from player to coach. He hopes he will be able to learn from his former opponent once he has hung up his boots for the final time.
“Rugby is a game with such fine margins. When you think of teams like Leinster, the Crusaders in New Zealand, Saracens and Exeter, those teams have really played great rugby for a number of years now.
“I think it’s got a lot to do with the culture and the way they treat people in the club and the players, and then all of that good energy transfers onto the field. Once my career ends, I would love to be around and see exactly how they do that first-hand.
“I don’t think that every great player becomes a great coach, but Ronan O’Gara is someone who has done it brilliantly. I think it would just be a privilege to try to pick these guys’ brains and think about the way they approach the game, that will be something I can’t wait to do going forward.”