Ulster are right to be angry about Ruan Pienaar’s departure

The IRFU must realise that foreign players are good for provinces and for Irish rugby

While Ulster see Ruan Pienaar as an irreplaceable figure, the IRFU see him as an expendable commodity. Only time will tell how damaging this will prove.

The statement from Ulster landed on Wednesday morning: Pienaar has to leave Belfast next summer. The Springbok scrumhalf wants to stay and Ulster want to keep him, having built any hint of success around his considerable skills since 2010. But the IRFU is not for bending. Not this time.

The Ulster statement of facts was not intended as open revolt against IRFU performance director David Nucifora, but it is hard not to see it as anything but.

In contrast to the Munster situation last season when Wallaby captain Stephen Moore was either blocked or wasn’t blocked – conjecture still reigns on that – Ulster sought to deliver clarity. Let the facts speak for themselves. Which they do.


Nucifora responded with a statement at 1pm on Wedneday. The IRFU succession policy seeks to develop homegrown talent – or foreigners temporarily turned into Irish men via the three-year residency rule, it neglected to mention.

The provinces are not buying this. In fact, they are quietly livid about it.

“We have continued to show that we have the resources, and more importantly, a positive environment and ethos, that make us an attractive proposition for prospective players,” said Ulster chief executive Shane Logan. “This culture was one of the main reasons why Ruan, among others, was attracted to the club in the first place and why he was so keen to stay.”

On the resources front, the IRFU disagree. Only last July chief executive Philip Browne said: “The provinces simply can’t go out into the global market place and expect to pick up world-class players with the budget they have. They have got to live within their budgets, which is why it is better value for us to invest in the pathway. To produce our own players. We simply can’t compete with what is happening in France.”

Know this: behind closed doors there is a constant struggle between Nucifora and the provinces.

Indigenous talent

Nucifora feels Ulster will be better able to nurture their young scrumhalves without Ruan Pienaar: “It is vital for both Ulster and Irish rugby that the province develop indigenous talent in this position and an extension of Ruan’s contract would further prevent Irish-qualified Ulster players from maximising their developmental potential and becoming stars for both Ulster and Ireland.”

The assertion that Pienaar is in the way must be hard to swallow in Ulster. Paul Marshall, who is 31, has had plenty of chances to climb up the pecking order. He's a snappy, reliable understudy. Nothing more. Next come David Shanahan and Angus Lloyd, two more from the Leinster overflow.

Their academy scrumhalves, Jonny Stewart and Rhys O’Donnell, won’t be ready for three years. Imagine the impact an 88 times-capped Springbok could have had on the development of these four young men?

Also, considering Pienaar is being cut loose, how come Zane Kirchner – so obviously in the way of Cian Kelleher that he took his indigenous talent to Connacht – was allowed to be offered a new deal to stay in Dublin? Maybe Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss will have to take the Leinster route and recruit a foreign scrumhalf who can be naturalised.

The swivelling head of Jamison Gibson-Park and his natural bullet pass off both hands is already clear to see. Not unlike Bundee Aki, providing he picks Galway over a pay increase, the green jersey has plenty of appeal to these nomadic New Zealanders.

Maybe they are not mercenaries. We know Isa Nacewa is anything but. The versatile Leinster back wanted to come out of retirement last year. He would only do so by returning to the city where his children were born. Leo Cullen made him club captain.

Ulster are about to be denied the full value of a similarly totemic figure. Pienaar is 32 and the Springboks have cut him loose so he can basically name his price to play almost anywhere in France or England for at least the next three seasons.

But he didn’t want to leave Ulster. We know this because he said so. “I am not moving on for a new adventure or for financial reasons – I wanted to stay and I know that Ulster Rugby did everything it could to keep me in Belfast.”

Ulster pulled up short of a Matt O’Connor-type outburst as they, like everybody else, have to approach Nucifora, cap in hand, on a regular basis.

Promising players

Kiss did highlight how damaging the loss of Pienaar would be: “His influence within the squad, both on and off the field, is truly remarkable, whether that is through match-winning contributions or mentoring the promising players coming through our pathway. Indeed, he has played a big part in helping us to develop a large group of talented young backline players who have gone on to represent Ireland in recent years.”

Fact: Pienaar made Ulster better and that makes Ireland better.

Look at the calibre of foreign players in the Leinster and Munster European Cup-winning sides: Doug Howlett, Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi, Isa Nacewa, Rocky Elsom, Chris Whitaker, Stan Wright, Brad Thorn and Nathan Hines.

Granted, Ulster did just sign Charles Piutau and Springbok flanker Marcell Coetzee. They were also allowed to secure Georgian tighthead Anton Peikrishvili but that’s a needs-must situation, as Wiehahn Herbst, Ricky Lutton and Jonny Simpson are laid up.

Nucifora had to green- light this short-term solution. The long-term IRFU plan is also sound: develop the coaching pathway. An additional €3.2 million has been set aside by the union for “elite player development”. The intention is to improve and widen the base of quality coaching for talented teenagers.

“Ulster is special to me and my family now,” said Pienaar, “and I would like to thank my wife, Monique, for coming here to support me and for helping to make it home for us.”

Not for much longer. The message from the IRFU to world-class players of Pienaar’s ilk is loud and clear: Need not apply. Mercenaries only.

All for the long-term good of Irish rugby. Even if the short-term damage seems lasting.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent