Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Heineken Cup: Ulster's Ruan Pienaar the talk of Europe

Ulster's Ruan Pienaar celebrates with fans after the game

Ruan Pienaar’s man-of-the match-performance against Edinburgh in Saturday’s 22-19 Heineken Cup semi-final victory has made the Ulster scrum-half the most talked-about player in European rugby right now.

Suddenly everybody is asking questions about the brilliant Springbok; what sort of guy is he, what makes him tick?

The two-word answer to the first of those questions is ‘extremely shy’. Quiet, too. And modest.

As to what makes him tick, that’s very straightforward; it’s his faith, his family and his friends. In that order.

They will all be central to his preparations for the Heineken Cup final clash with Leinster at Twickenham on May 19 when, by his own admission, Ulster will have to show a big improvement on Saturday’s showing against Edinburgh.

“We know it wasn’t our best performance and there’s a lot to improve on, but we’ll take the win,” Pienaar said. “We need to work hard in the next couple of weeks, though.”

Distractions in the next 17 days? Maybe strumming a guitar.

Certainly that is an option, for as fellow-South African Robbie Diack revealed: “I started playing guitar a few months ago and a few of us started getting together to do that — Ruan, Pedrie (Wannenburg), Declan (Fitzpatrick) and Craig (Gilroy) are learning to play, too.”

Sitting alongside his fellow-countryman and Ulster team-mate, Pienaar smiled in a way which suggested he does not see himself — or any of the others — being the next Yngwie Malmsteen or John Williams.

Pienaar, who will be with Ulster for at least two more years after signing a contract extension which keeps him here until June 2014, is enjoying rugby and life in general here.

If he continues at scrum-half — his preferred position, though he is no slouch at 10, either, having lined out there for the Springboks — as things stand Ian Humphreys and Paddy Jackson will be the pair vying for the right to partner him.

At 20, Jackson is 10 years younger than his rival for the job. And Pienaar certainly gave the Dungannon stand-off a big post-semi-final thumbs-up when he said: “I think there are big things to come from Paddy Jackson; he’s a brilliant player.

“He marshalled the forwards well and had a couple of good tactical kicks. I think for a youngster coming in that he did really well.”

Pienaar had little hesitation in signing that contract extension.

“It has been a great experience. I’ve made some good friends and I’ve really enjoyed the rugby side. The people of Belfast have welcomed myself and my family with open arms and so it was an easy decision in the end,” he explained.

“My wife certainly likes it here and we’ve had a baby daughter a short time ago so we are expanding as a family and really enjoying it.

“One day when I am retired I will bring my little girl back and show her where she was born.”

It is a well-known fact that he is a deeply committed Christian and in keeping with that he told me: “We have started a Bible study group within the team and since coming here that’s probably the only thing I’ve got involved in outside of rugby.

“Our faith is important to us and it plays a big part in our families, so we started the Bible study group within the club. It is going well — we get about eight to 10 guys there every week.”

He shyness is matched by his self-deprecation, an aspect of his personality highlighted when he says: “Other than that I’m a bit of a boring guy.

“I just like to spend time with my wife and little girl — stay at home and relax.

“I go into town now and then and I also like to play some golf — if the weather allows it!”

He has 51 Springboks caps to his credit — the most recent of them against Namibia in September 2011. Since he joined Ulster from Natal Sharks in September 2010, we have seen just how good he is.

As was the case in his most recent match for Ulster, his first outing also was of man-of-the-match calibre, with Glasgow the victims of an outstanding debut which saw him score all of his new club’s points in a 19-17 home victory.

A converted try and four penalties wasn’t a bad way to introduce himself to the Ravenhill crowd.

Such was the form he showed in his first season that he was named in the Magners League Team of the Year as well as scooping the Magners League Players’ Player of the Year award.

The Ulster Player of the Year accolade completed a memorable first-season hat-trick.

And now he has helped steer Ulster to the Heineken Cup final.

Some player.