Ruan Pienaar bids farewell to Ulster
Ruan Pienaar's switch to Heineken Cup holders, Toulon, has been confirmed, dashing Ulster supporters' hopes that their world-class scrum-half might be persuaded to stay.
Pienaar, whose Ravenhill contract expires at the end of the season, is reported to have signed a lucrative two-year-deal, though neither Ulster nor Toulon had authenticated the deal last night.
Nor are there details as to just how 'lucrative' the package is, but bearing in mind the sort of contracts to which certain other Toulon players were happy to add their signatures it is reasonable to assume that Pienaar will be significantly better off than with Ulster.
Jonny Wilkinson, who captained Toulon to last season's Heineken Cup, is Europe's best paid player, his monthly salary being £48,155. Bryan Habana – Pienaar's Springboks team-mate – earns £42,991 per month. Both fellow-South African Bakkies Botha and New Zealander Carl Hayman are on £35,254, while Australia's Matt Giteau is paid £34,394. That means five of the northern hemisphere's 10 best paid players are Toulon employees.
The French giants have majored in bringing vastly experienced South African players to Stade Félix Mayol; to the names of Habana and Botha can be added those of Danie Rossouw, Joe van Niekerk, Michael Claassens, Juan Smith and now Ruan Pienaar who will join the others in time for the start of 2014-15. Yesterday morning a reliable rugby source in South Africa told the Belfast Telegraph: "We believed Pienaar was keen to come back here when his contract with Ulster finished in June. But an offer from Toulon doesn't surprise me. They have been making moves for a number of South Africans, Craig Burden being the latest."
According to reports in Durban, hooker Burden is leaving the Sharks – the club from which Ulster signed Pienaar in 2010 – to play for Toulon on a trial basis in the hope of making the move permanent.
And Schalk Burger is reported to be another player on the wish-list of Toulon's wealthy president Mourad Boudjellal. Intriguingly, if they succeed in signing him, his inclusion alongside Smith and Rossouw, would see South Africa's 2007 World Cup-winning back row reunited in the colours of last season's Heineken Cup winners. That is an intimidating prospect for the rest of the Top 14 and the rest of Europe to assimilate.
The recently-completed signing of Smith merely added proof of Toulon's Monsieur Rugby Boudjellal's refusal to give up on a target.
The 32-year-old former Boks flanker had announced his retirement in February 2013 after aggravating an Achilles tendon injury that had sidelined him for the previous 18 months.
After four operations, an attempted comeback had ended in failure.
However, his successful completion of a medical last weekend suggested that provided there is sufficient money to throw at a problem, even medicine's normal conventions sometimes can be side-stepped. It also underlined Toulon's preference for experienced players, so with Pienaar's next birthday being his 30th, he fitted the Boudjellal bill perfectly.
All things considered – and do bear in mind the fact that the weather in the south of France isn't bad, either – Pienaar found it too much to resist.
Earlier in the day Ian Campbell, chairman of the vibrant Ulster Rugby Supporters' Club, admitted there was little the fans could do to stop the province's star player joining the free-spending European champions.
"There really isn't anything we as supporters can do," he said prior to the announcement of the done-deal made by L'Equipe, the French sports daily.
"If he is to stay then it will be up to the IRFU, the Ulster Branch and of course Ruan's family," said the URSC chairman, unaware of the fact that even as we spoke an announcement which rendered his words no longer relevant was being made.
But what he said after that remains wholly germane.
His words were: "Obviously we want him to stay because if he does go I think that will be a significant blow to Ulster's prospects of landing silverware unless they can come up with a replacement of equal standing, either at nine or ten."
Another Ravenhill regular, Johnston Clarke, highlighted Pienaar's Christian convictions with a comment which read: "If you have heard Ruan's story then you will know he will be lead by God and nobody else."
It now appears he has been lead to France.