Ruan Pienaar’s enforced departure hits so many wrong notes

In essence, gifted South African has been treated as a mere commodity by the IRFU

An emotional Ruan Pienaar after his last game for Ulster against Leinster at the  Kingspan Stadium. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Presseye/Inpho

An emotional Ruan Pienaar after his last game for Ulster against Leinster at the Kingspan Stadium. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Presseye/Inpho

 

Well, Ruan Pienaar’s hugely emotional farewell proved it, as if it needed proving.

Too choked with tears to even put into words how he felt in the immediate aftermath of his final competitive game for Ulster, after his father, wife Monique and their two children Lemay and Jean-Luc joined him on the sidelines, Pienaar’s IRFU-enforced departure went way beyond a mere rugby related decision.

There was and remains a human element to Pienaar’s eviction from Ulster, against his and his province’s wishes, and on this score the optics of Saturday’s farewell reflected poorly on the IRFU.

Pienaar, like every other professional rugby player affiliated to Irish rugby, is not just a commodity, but in this case he has been treated merely as such.

Yes, there is an argument for moving Pienaar on. In his seven seasons at Ulster, the province failed to develop another indigenous scrumhalf, as they had been repeatedly asked to do. But just because he is moving on now doesn’t necessarily mean that, like mushrooms, one is suddenly going to sprout from the ground.

Yes, the IRFU’s high performance manager David Nucifora has to see the wider picture and help to determine the Ireland team’s long-term succession planning in every position, and in this he is doing a very good job. Much to Leinster’s chagrin, Nucifora revealed that on foot of Ian Madigan’s departure, and a season beforehand that of Jimmy Gopperth, they had requested permission to sign an overseas outhalf as back-up to Johnny Sexton.

No doubt his and the union’s decision not to grant this request contributed to the emergence of Joey Carbery, and indeed Ross Byrne and Cathal Marsh. Otherwise, they would not have seen as much game time as they have.

Nucifora’s stance in the protracted wrangling over Munster’s desire to sign Wallabies hooker and captain Stephen Moore has also been vindicated in the emergence of Niall Scannell.

And so on, and so on.

The retirement of BJ Botha assuredly opened the door for John Ryan, although Ryan would be the first to admit that Botha played a huge role in his own development, and this is a familiar refrain, be it John Langford’s influence over Donncha O’Callaghan and other Munster locks, ditto Brad Thorn on Devin Toner and co at Leinster, Felipe Contepomi on Johnny Sexton, Isa Nacewa over the outside backs and many others in Leinster, and Pienaar himself on Paddy Jackson.

Rightful limitations

Even in Craig Clarke’s brief stay at Connacht before concussion issues forced him to retire, John Muldoon has said he learned more from the former Waikato Chiefs’ captain about leadership than anyone else. In this too, one could go on and on, and on.

Because of the rightful limitations placed on the number of overseas players in the Irish system, their currency becomes even more valuable. Hence, the higher the quality and amount of their performances, the more they buy into the province, the longer they stay and the greater legacy they leave, the better. Pienaar ticked all those boxes.

One can’t help but feel that with Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss retiring, Leinster were understandably granted permission to sign an overseas scrumhalf, cue the arrival of Jamison Gibson-Park, and that the ripple effect was the decision regarding Pienaar.

But as events have transpired, Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion have both come on a ton this year, and helped steer Ireland to victory over England. Besides, retaining Pienaar in a quasi coaching role might actually have helped Ulster develop an indigenous scrumhalf under his guidance.

For Nucifora to stand in the way of Pienaar being granted a new contract would be akin to the IRFU not allowing Leinster to re-sign their captain Isa Nacewa for another season after his seven years with the province, during which time his three children were also all born in Ireland.

It would have been equally wrong on so many levels. No doubt it’s been noted up north that when he was head coach of the Auckland Blues, Nucifora gave Nacewa his Super Rugby debut. Yet imagine the furore had that happened. It would have been understandable as well.

It’s also worth noting the IRFU bankroll the provinces, but the fallout from this decision are significant, and go beyond even Ulster losing Pienaar as and from next season onwards, which is considerable in itself. The loss of his composure in the heat of battle, decision-making and skill execution will leave a huge void. While they have made some good, badly needed signings up front, were Pienaar’s void to contribute to another underwhelming Ulster season, that will do no-one any good.

Iconic figure

His team-mates are evidently disappointed, witness Luke Marshall’s brave comments admitting their annoyance and incomprehension over the decision. Historically, the union has never taken kindly to any of their employers stepping out of line publicly. The Ulster supporters clearly feel annoyed and betrayed at the loss of such an iconic figure.

Most of all perhaps, it simply sends out the wrong message; that playing brilliantly, buying into a province’s culture and setting down roots (even building a family here) as Pienaar has done, doesn’t preclude the IRFU determining that a player will be surplus to requirements.

Mercenaries need only apply.

Ultimately, it’s just such a shame to see a high-class player and bloke, who had rejected more remunerative options abroad when opting to stay with Ulaster, and who had become such an innate part of the Ulster fabric, being forced to move on against his and Ulster’s wishes.

On a human level, as Saturday showed, it’s all wrong.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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