Ruan Pienaar targeting Montpellier win to thank Ulster fans
I t was nine days ago now when Ruan Pienaar sent Ulster spirits soaring by committing himself to a three-year contract extension.
French giants Toulon – the Heineken Cup holders – had tried, but failed, to woo him. Instead he gave Ulster players and supporters alike the best possible pre-Heineken Cup boost by opting to stay put.
Now, I don't know if Director of Rugby David Humphreys stage-managed the timing of the announcement. But if he did, it was a masterstroke.
Because just what that decision meant was underlined last Friday night at Ravenhill when, shortly before kick-off against Leicester Tigers, the names of Ulster's replacements were read aloud to the 14,000 crowd. The sixth of the eight was that of Ruan Pienaar and the roar which greeted it said everything.
Since joining Ulster in summer 2010, he has established himself as a firm fans' favourite. They admire his skill, they love his dependability, they drool over the fact that – even in the toughest of situations or the tightest of corners – he is never flustered. Like all great players, he appears always to have time.
The volume of the roar when his name was announced before last weekend's Heineken Cup round one clash with England's Aviva Premiership champions was surpassed when with half-an-hour remaining, he entered the fray for his first Ulster outing of 2013-14. The warmth of the reception reminded him of why he had stayed.
"Obviously it was very nice to hear and I am very grateful for that," he said modestly. "I have had some very good support since coming to Belfast – not only me, but my family as well.
"A reception like that is very nice to come back to. The one thing you can always count on here is the supporters. They are always very loyal to the team, very supportive."
We talked a day after the announcement that, just like himself, fellow scrum-half Paul Marshall had signed up for a further three seasons. Pienaar was delighted at that, and with the way things generally are shaping up.
"It's fantastic to see him signing again. And Robbie (Diack) and Nick (Williams) as well," Pienaar said. "It's fantastic to see guys extending their contracts and committing themselves to staying for the next couple of seasons. It's great because that means the squad is developing.
"Hopefully we will be able to give something back to Ulster in the next few years."
The first opportunity to give something back, as he puts it, comes tomorrow afternoon in the south of France where Ulster square up to Top 14 big hitters Montpellier.
"They are at the top of the Top 14 and they have played some brilliant rugby, at home especially, so it is going to be a very tough challenge for us," the 71-times-capped Springbok admitted.
"We have a squad good enough to go there and challenge them, but that's not going to be easy; we will have to be at our best."
The scale of the test does not deter him. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"This is why we play rugby, to play in games like this so that you will be challenged," he said.
"Montpellier have very big forwards and that is what their team is built around – big forwards and exciting backs. (Jonathan) Pelissie I believe will be their nine and (Francois) Trinh-Duc is there, too, and they have got quality in their back row as well so it will be a massive challenge for us. But in saying that, we've got some world-class players in our team as well.
"They play with a rush defence, which makes things difficult, so we will have to be accurate and precise. That is something we have talked about."
Having been in the Ulster side which ran Clermont so agonisingly close in 2012 before winning in Castres last season, Pienaar knows what playing in France entails. Now he wants a repeat of last January's success.
"Beating Castres was good, but as a squad we cannot be happy with having done that once. We need to win again in France if we are to keep going forward. Repeating that win is what is important," he said.
"That is not going to be easy, but we will give it our best shot."
Leicester continue their Heineken campaign at home to Treviso in Pool Five tonight, knowing that victory – preferably with a bonus point – would keep them on a quarter-final course despite an opening game defeat against Ulster.
"Treviso will try to throw the ball around and disrupt us upfront, so we will have to be on our game to make sure that we get four points, if not five," Leicester flanker Julian Salvi said.
"We will be going for five points – that's our goal. If we can be on six points in the pool after two games, we will be sitting nicely."
While Leicester will start as firm favourites to beat their Italian visitors, last season's two Heineken meetings between the teams proved that Treviso are no mugs.
They pushed Tigers all the way at Welford Road before suffering a 33-25 defeat, and then Leicester pinched a 14-13 verdict on Italian soil six days later.