Heineken Cup: South African Ruan Pienaar pivotal to Ulster cause

Belfast is a place Ruan Pienaar freely admits he would have struggled to locate on a map four years ago. Yet, heading into this weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-final against Saracens, the South African is pivotal to Ulster's cause.

Had his former Natal Sharks and Springboks team-mate Johann Muller not agreed a deal with Ulster in January 2010, Pienaar would probably have never ended up at Ravenhill.

"I knew no history about Belfast at all," Pienaar told BBC Sport Northern Ireland. "But Johann had just signed and I told him I was quite interested in going overseas so I asked him if he would have a word with David Humphreys and see if there was maybe a spot at scrum-half. A couple of weeks later, David phoned me."

After being used to plush all-seater stadiums in his native South Africa, the 30-year-old Bloemfontein native admits the drive to the then ramshackle Ravenhill on day one was something of an eye-opener.

"Arriving here wasn't what I expected. My wife [Monique] was in the car with me and I thought, 'It's a bit different from what I'm used to'."

Four years on, the club's facilities have had a complete makeover and there appears not even a hint of regret about his decision to spend his best rugby years in Belfast.

Ruan Pienaar factfile

  • Born 10 March 1983
  • His father Gysie played 13 times for the Springboks
  • Educated at Grey College, whose students have included a host of others who went on to play for the Springboks
  • Played on South African U19 and U21 World Cup-winning teams
  • Made his Springboks debut against New Zealand in 2006
  • Was part of South African's World Cup-winning squad the following year
  • Played for Natal Sharks for six seasons before moving to Ulster in 2010
  • Helped Ulster reach the 2012 Heineken Cup final

"It has been the right decision. Staying here has been really enjoyable," adds Pienaar, whose daughter Lemay was born in the city two years ago.

A committed Christian, he regularly gives talks on his faith to church groups with other members of the Ulster squad and has previously spoken of his belief that he has found himself in Belfast for "reasons that are not entirely to do with rugby". 

Not even a reportedly lucrative offer from French outfit Toulon last autumn could tempt Pienaar away from his adopted home, although the South African suggests that the reports may have been a "little exaggerated".

"I've never heard about the 60,000 Euro (£50,000) a month," he says of the suggested salary on offer in France. "I guess that's just a bit of a rumour because I don't think that's true."

This year's Six Nations had some memorable rugby but it is doubtful it served up anything to match the individual brilliance produced by Pienaar in Ulster's Heineken Cup win over Leicester in January.

The South African scored all of Ulster's points in a 22-19 victory, a result that maintained the Irish province's 100% pool record and set up Saturday's home quarter-final.

Granted, Ulster's pack delivered the platform for Pienaar, but his performance of composed orchestration was something to behold.

"I was sitting in the changing room after the game with Gilly [Ulster wing Craig Gilroy] and he just said to me, 'Isn't it unfair how good Ruan is?'" says Andrew Trimble, another Ulster team-mate. "A massive amount of our game plan revolves around him."

Ruan Pienaar

Pienaar scored all 22 Ulster points in the Heineken Cup win over Leicester in January

It is much easier to get Pienaar's Ulster colleagues and analysts to talk about his ability than to elicit thoughts from the man himself on his talent.

BBC Sport Northern Ireland pundit Maurice Field believe Pienaar's greatest attribute is to "create time for himself and his team-mates".

"He's a completely different type of scrum-half to abrasive ones like Danny Care and Conor Murray who always seem to be playing at 100 miles an hour," says the former Ireland centre.

For his own part, the understated South African invariably smiles his way through interviews without betraying the merest hint of arrogance.

But he is relaxed talking about his "rugby upbringing" with his father Gysie having earned 13 Springboks caps in the early 1980s. "I was born and my Dad straight away had a rugby ball in my arms," he says.

"My father actually played against Ireland in 1981 and our Ulster team doctor, David Irwin - who played for Ireland in that series - showed me a picture from a newspaper article where he was actually next to my Dad.

"The Springboks had a fantastic team then and if there had been a World Cup in that era, I think they would have come close to winning it. They had the likes of Naas Botha, Danie Gerber, Ray Mordt."

In Pienaar's teenage years, his father was backs coach for Currie Cup side Free State Cheetahs and the young Ruan would invariably watch the players being put through their paces in training after school.

Yet while he had followed his father's example, Pienaar acknowledges that being sent to the famous Grey College also played a major part in his rugby development.

The Bloemfontein school is renowned for its sporting emphasis, having helped produce dozens of Springboks internationals, including Morne du Plessis, Ruben Kruger and Francois Steyn, in addition to other sports stars such as cricketer Hansie Cronje and athlete LJ van Zyl.

"Bismarck du Plessis [Springbok hooker] was the same year as me," Pienaar recalls. "Francois Steyn was a couple of years younger and there were others like CJ van der Linde [Springbok prop] were there around the same time as me."

His development at Grey College soon caught the eyes of the South African selectors and he played in the Springboks sides which earned under-19 and under-21 world championship triumphs.

Pienaar aiming for Heineken glory

Then, in 2007, the 22-year-old Pienaar helped his country achieve the ultimate prize as he was part of the World Cup-winning squad in France.

"I had to contest [for scrum-half] with Fourie du Preez and I started only once against Tonga," he says. "I was full-back that day and for the rest of the tournament was on the bench. But to be part of the 30 players going to a World Cup and lifting the trophy at the end of the tournament was unbelievable."

Over the next three years, consistently impressive displays for the Natal Sharks helped Pienaar bring up his caps haul to 43 before he finally followed through on his urge to play rugby "somewhere in Europe".

Pienaar took the decision to sign for Ulster even though the South African rugby authorities had not yet resolved to remove the bar on foreign-based players from representing the Springboks.

As it transpired, the ruling was eventually dispensed with and Pienaar has played 31 times for his country in the last four years as he produced the best form of his career.

It may not have been just Ulster supporters who had their hearts in their mouths when Pienaar finished the recent Pro12 win over Scarlets clutching a shoulder but the soundings from the coaching staff in recent days suggest that their inspirational scrum-half will be fit to play in Saturday's crunch European game.

Whatever happens this weekend, Ulster fans can look forward to seeing Pienaar in action at Ravenhill until at least the summer of 2017.

"I'm happy with the decision I've made to stay here for another couple of years," he says. "Playing for Ulster has been really fantastic.

"The support I've been given over here has been phenomenal. My family has been treated well so we can't ask for anything more."