Ruan Pienaar ready for clash that always stirs imagination

South Africa scrumhalf says luck deserted Northern Hemisphere sides at tournament

As ever with Ruan Pienaar there will be no holiday. As soon as South Africa's World Cup is over, he will return to Ulster. The man who has been on the rugby treadmill seemingly without a break since joining Ulster in 2010, will return to Belfast immediately for his sixth season with the province.

"No, straight back in," he said with a ready smile during the Springboks' media day in Guildford, where Ireland would have been based, and where over 50 journalists and 15 camera crews were hemmed into one room. "The [Ulster] trainer rang me."

Given his unremitting exposure to rugby in both hemispheres, Pienaar is better placed than most to assess a gulf in class which has seemingly never been greater. Yet he maintained his “surprise” that no European team had reached this weekend’s impending semi-finals.

“We always expected to see two or three northern hemisphere teams to be involved. I think the group with Wales, Australia and England was a really tough one, and someone had to lose out there. And then obviously for me, playing with a lot of the Irish guys and seeing how they’ve progressed and how well they’ve played the last couple of months, it’s almost sad for me not to see them in the semi-finals.”


Up against it

“World Cups are funny things,” Pienaar added. “They are all one-off games, every one like a play-off. For Ireland to lose Paul, Peter and Johnny, they are three key players and with Seán O’Brien banned, those are four really big players. With Argentina as one of the form sides, you were always going to be up against it. It has been interesting to watch it unfold. Now with these four teams anyone can win it on the day.”

That said, Pienaar is not surprised by the way Argentina have played, having been perfecting their new brand of rugby for four years in the Rugby Championship, and described them and Australia as the form sides in the pool stages before New Zealand's stunning dissection of France.

By contrast, South Africa have had to regroup after the shock of their opening defeat to Japan with four sleeves-rolled-up wins encompassing traditional crash-bang-wallop virtues.

“It couldn’t have been a worse start. We have been tested and every week has been like a play-off for us. If we lost one more game we would have gone home. We wouldn’t have made the play-offs. So the guys know what it takes to be in the pressure situations now. Although it was a terrible result and one that will hurt us for a long time, I think in the long run it’s probably helped us in some ways.”

Pienaar will be on the bench on Saturday for a game he would dearly love to play in. For any aspiring South African rugby player, the rivalry with the All Blacks has always been the one that stirred their imaginations, and for Pienaar it is no different.

"For sure, I remember as a little boy, waking up at four in the morning to watch the three-Test series," he recalled, in reference to the Springboks three-test tour of New Zealand, when the Boks' prevented a whitewash with a draw in the third match, when he was just 10 years old.

“That was always the one that you wanted to watch, so if you asked every South African boy, that would be the game they wanted to play in. It’s all you can ask for [and] it’s a World Cup semi-final.”

Looking at the role of Schalk Burger since the flanker’s return from a life threatening bout of bacterial meningitis in 2013, Pienaar said: “What he went through was really bad. I was in South Africa and all his family and friends said he was close to dying, and for him to make a comeback like he has done is unbelievable, and the way he is playing now is unbelievable.

“I think he’s probably changed the way he’s played in the last couple of years. I think he’s a really good ball distributor and he creates a lot for us. He’s just got a never-say-die attitude. Flies into everything. He’s probably one of the hardest guys I know.


“ To see him in this form is obviously great for us and I guess sometimes scary for the opposition.

“He’s a really great guy, he’s so laidback off the pitch but then once he crosses those four lines he becomes an animal. He’s been really, really outstanding for us in this World Cup and one of our key players in the team. To see him play like that is really important for us.”

“I don’t think he likes us talking about it too much. I think he’s healthy now and stronger than ever but obviously this is his fourth World Cup so he brings a lot of experience, a lot of leadership, so to have someone like him is brilliant.”

South Africa team to play New Zealand:

W Le Roux, JP Pietersen, J Kriel, D de Allende, B Habana, H Pollard, F du Preez (capt), T Mtawarira, B du Plessis, F Malherbe, E Etzebeth, L d Jager, F Louw, S Burger, D Vermeulen.


A Strauss, T Nyankane, J du Plessis, V Matfield, W Alberts, R Pienaar, P Lambie, J Serfontein.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times