Ruan Pienaar out to rediscover his magical touch for Ulster
As Ulster scramble to keep their season alive against Connacht tonight (7.35pm), star scrum-half Ruan Pienaar admits he is still searching for his best form.
The 32-year-old South African has been one of the province's finest players of the professional era - and is still the yardstick by which big-money signings such as Charles Piutau and Marcell Coetzee will be judged - but says this season's workload and international commitments are taking their toll.
Having amassed 88 caps for the Springboks, many coming in the summer months when his provincial team-mates are resting up, Pienaar has rarely been afforded a break since arriving in Belfast almost six years ago with this season's World Cup placing even further strain on his body.
"It has been a long season," he said. "Heading back to South Africa after last season, straight into a pre-season for the Rugby Championship and the World Cup, and then straight back here after that.
"I personally haven't been happy with my form and I've really wanted to perform better. You get games and seasons like that but I'm still hungry to perform. That's what's driving me.
"I've got no niggles now; I feel healthy and strong. For me it's about the next couple of games and trying to help this team reach the play-offs."
After last week's loss to Glasgow, that prospect seems increasingly remote but Pienaar exudes calm when he discusses what is required to book a semi-final place - four wins from their last four games, starting against the league leaders tonight.
"I think we put pressure on ourselves," he said when asked if the team were feeling the strain.
"This is knockout rugby for us now. It's massive for us.
"There are goals we set ourselves before the season started and we're still doing everything in our power to reach those. We've got to win all our games and that's why we're here.
"For us, it's great to have the internationals back and a lot of players can draw confidence from seeing them.
"There are a lot of leaders and experience but we'll need all 23 players to perform well and be at their best. Otherwise we're going to fall short. We know that but we've been in this situation before.
"We have to embrace the challenge, step up and hopefully get the results that we need."
However, should the side not feature in a springtime knockout game for the first time since Pienaar arrived on these shores, the former Natal Shark rejects any notion it would represent the beginning of a return to the days when such finishes were the norm in both the league and Europe.
"We've got a strong squad and a couple of players coming next season who will add a lot of value," he added. "Obviously we'll be disappointed but there are still loads of important things and it's not all doom and gloom.
"Les (Kiss) expects a lot, and we do as well. As players we want to make the play-offs and be in Europe next year.
"We'll do everything we can to do that."