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Rugby star Ruan Pienaar's Christian faith persuaded him to stay with Ulster

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 13/01/2016

Ruan Pienaar and his wife Monique before the birth of their daughter Lemay
Ruan Pienaar and his wife Monique before the birth of their daughter Lemay
Ruan Pienaar and daughter Lemay
Ruan and Monique arriving from South Africa in 2010
Monique and Lemay with Ruan’s number 9 Ulster shirt
Action man: Ruan Pienaar during a game

Ulster Rugby star Ruan Pienaar raised a few eyebrows when he turned down a big money offer from European giants Toulon in order to stay in Belfast, but the South African had far more than sport on his mind as he pondered the biggest decision of his career.

A devout Christian, Pienaar's original choice to move to Northern Ireland was heavily influenced by his religious faith, and it was a desire to share his beliefs that saw him turn down the hefty pay cheque on offer in the south of France.

"I had many offers from different places; France, England, you name it," said Pienaar.

"But I have always believed with my Christianity that there's so much more to life than rugby.

"I said to my wife before we came here that we had to be strong in our faith, and I believe that God gave me a door to walk through here at Ulster.

"Being here gives me an enormous sense of purpose. I am not just here for rugby, I'm here to touch lives.

"When the Toulon thing came up (in 2013), it was something that I thought about and prayed hard about.

"I felt comfortable staying in Belfast and I've never regretted my decision since.

"I felt that the Lord had so much more to show me here and there's so much more that I've got to do in Belfast. It was a huge help in my decision."

Now aged 31, the 2007 World Cup winner has always had a strong religious conviction, but his faith has grown and adapted throughout his career.

"Back in South Africa, almost everyone grows up within the church," said the player currently going through the process of acquiring a British passport.

"In a normal house in South Africa, they go to church every Sunday.

"It's something I've grown up with, but it's grown stronger as I've become older and my perspective on a few things has probably changed.

"It's something that you have to be careful of. There's a very religious way of going about it, but for me it's all about having a personal relationship with God.

"The older I got, the more I learnt, the more I realised how important it is in my life.

"That's part of what I'm trying to put out to people.

"I wouldn't have reached the highs, or made it through the lows, all through my career if it wasn't for my faith.

"It's something that I truly believe in."

There is a strong Christian contingent at Ulster Rugby - the likes of Paul Marshall, Wiehahn Herbst, Andrew Trimble, Nick Williams and Louis Ludik have all been open about their faith - and Pienaar admitted that it can help the transition for religiously-minded new signings.

"The lifestyle and culture here are probably very different to what I'm used to over in South Africa, and I think that's maybe a subtle difference," he added.

"I think for us coming from abroad, it's a big move for us and our families, so to have people with the same interests and same beliefs helps."

While there are also many in the squad without firm religious beliefs, Pienaar stressed there was nothing approaching a divided dressing room.

"Not everyone is going to agree with you, but everyone else is very open and respectful," he said. "There's no split or anything.

"The whole community welcomes you with open arms and there's respect for everybody, no matter what you believe.

"All those in the squad are really good people, and if you can manage to touch one of your team-mates, that is ideal."

It is with this attitude in mind that Pienaar has continued his involvement with the organisation Christian Vision for Men (CVM) and will speak at St Anne's Cathedral on January 25 with team-mates Herbst and Marshall about his own experiences with the church.

A link originally established by former Ulster captain Johann Muller, the organisation aims to see men become more comfortable in discussing religious issues.

"I really enjoy it and it's just something to focus on outside rugby," said the man who has also established a wine brand with team-mate Robbie Diack.

"It's been a couple of years since Johann Muller was here.

"We met up with (Gareth) Spud Murphy (CVM director) and we've done a couple of these events now across the country.

"It's something I enjoy, something outside of rugby, and it's very close to my heart.

"It's based around men, but we do get ladies coming as well, and it's spreading the message.

"For me, I think everyone knows that I'm a Christian, that my faith is a huge part of my life, but men maybe don't talk about things as much and it's something we try to change.

"Through talking about our experiences, maybe we can get men to give their hearts to the Lord and to take leadership of faith.

"Paul Marshall and Wiehahn Herbst will be joining me, so it's a good chance to talk about our experiences and what our faith has meant to us during our careers.

"We try and speak, and it's not even giving advice, but just talking about how men can set a good example to their kids and families through their faith.

"Staying in Ulster, doing this, was definitely part of the process.

"Spud has given us this opportunity through CVM and it's been really successful.

"We've had some wonderful stories of how people have given their hearts to the Lord and their lives were transformed.

"If you can even touch one person, then it's obviously huge for me."

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