Ruan Pienaar jetted into Belfast yesterday and even before he landed his fellow-countryman Johann Muller had hoisted a flag for his close friend.
With Ulster hosting French Top 14 side Castres in the opening match of the Heineken Cup on Friday night, it amounted to a reminder of Pienaar’s talent and experience.
Ultimately, of course, it is coach Mark Anscombe who will decide if Pienaar is ready for his first match of the season in Ulster colours and Friday may be a mite too soon for the Springboks’ scrum-half who has just completed a gruelling Four Nations series.
Quite apart from the demands of facing New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, the itinerary of the past two months has entailed travelling the length and breadth of the southern hemisphere.
With Pienaar back in favour with the Boks, he started in the final four tests, the last of which was played as recently as Saturday when the South Africans were beaten 32-16 — at home — by the All Blacks, the world champions.
So mentally as well as physically it has been an exhausting schedule which saw South Africa win two, draw one and lose three of the six matches. And Pienaar soon will be off again for next month’s games against Ireland, Scotland and England.
Even so, Muller was keen to stress what his pal brings to the party.
“He has played really well for the Boks so far this season. As a nine, he probably has got one of the best kicking games in world rugby.
“He’s also a great passer of the ball, so whatever team he plays for he will add a huge amount,” Muller said.
If the Ulster coach decides that the match against Castres is too soon for Pienaar, he does have the excellent option of retaining home-bred Paul Marshall who has been in first-class form. And options are all-important to Anscombe’s planning.
As far as he is concerned, the more flexible things are, the greater his chances of problem-solving. And succeeding.
“At different stages of the year different guys are going to be better suited and in better shape to perform what we need them to do,” he explained.
“What you need to have if you’re to cope is options. Let me give you a few examples: Jared Payne, as you will have seen a couple of years ago, is an outstanding centre. He has been playing full-back for us.
“We’ve got Tommy Bowe who is a Lions wing, but can play centre or full back.
“Ruan (Pienaar) has played international rugby at nine and 10. And we’ve got Paddy Wallace who can play 10 or 12.
“The flexibility coming from players’ ability to play in two positions allows us to use different combinations that suit us at different times and to get through times of unavailability, loss of form or injury.”
With this being Anscombe’s first taste of Heineken Cup action, the Kiwi is looking forward to sampling European club rugby’s premier tournament.
“I’ve always recognised the importance of it and been aware of the prestige of the competition,” he said.
“Even back home we get most of the games live on television so the exposure it gets is huge.
“It’s the most prestigious competition in the northern hemisphere as far as clubs go, so to be part of it is exciting.
“It’s a truly international tournament now with players and coaches from all over the world taking part.
“Three of the Irish provinces have Kiwi coaches and there are players from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia involved, too, as well as the northern hemisphere guys, so it’s a great competition and I’m really looking forward to it.”
While his coach looked forward to his first hands-on experience of the Heineken Cup, Muller (pictured with |Pienaar) expressed the conviction that Ulster will benefit as a result of having reached the quarter-final and final in each of the past two seasons.
“None of us had ever been there before, none of us had experienced that, so we will learn from it – the good things and the bad things as well,” the giant South African said.
“We took things out of our first year into our second year and we’re definitely going to take the lessons of our second year into our third.”
But he cautioned against being tempted to look beyond the immediate challenge.
“If we start thinking about quarter-finals or semi-finals or finals right now, there’s a very, very good chance that we won’t even get out of our pool,” Muller warned.