Focused Springbok Ruan Pienaar is aiming to kick ahead for Ulster
Almost five years on from swapping his native South Africa for Belfast, Ruan Pienaar's Ulster career has been full of new and novel experiences but last weekend brought a wholly unwelcome first for the 31-year-old from Bloemfontein.
When the 80-times capped Springbok first donned the white of the province he now calls home, Ulster hadn't reached the quarter-finals of Europe's premier competition since the victorious campaign of 1999.
With the classy scrum-half instantly becoming a central figure, a transformation occurred that saw the team successfully negotiate a quartet of consecutive pool stages and maintain their continental interest into the month of April for each of his first four years.
That run ended this season when Neil Doak's men ran into the considerable obstacle of back-to-back champions Toulon, a side who courted Pienaar heavily before he signed a three-year contract extension last year, leaving the 2007 World Cup winner watching on from the outside for the first time.
"It felt a bit strange," he admitted. "Those are games that you all want to be involved in and it's still now disappointing for us that we weren't this year.
"They were good quality quarter-finals and the four teams that went through are going to have some tough battles. (It will be) exciting to watch but definitely it would have been better for us to be involved."
Ahead of this weekend's trip to face Connacht at the Sportsground in Galway, Ulster's early Champions Cup exit means that they will play just twice in April, having done likewise in March, and Pienaar feels that the disjointed nature of the spring poses an added obstacle to Ulster's hopes of maintaining the top two position that would bring a home semi-final in the PRO12 play-offs.
"The biggest hurdle for us has been playing and then having a week off, playing and then having another week off, because we didn't qualify for the European quarter-finals," he said.
"That's a big challenge mentally for us to be ready every weekend. It's a bit of a difficult one to prepare well and get the mindset right."
While describing the 2016 arrival of All Black Charles Piutau as "big news for the club," Pienaar's focus is on more immediate matters and, with just four games remaining in the PRO12, he feels that the domestic campaign is shaping up for an enthralling conclusion.
"I think it's all panning out to be an exciting finish to the season. A lot of the top teams still have to play each other and that's why it's crucial to keep picking up points," he said.
"We've got a lot to play for and it's exciting to be involved.
"All the teams that play in this competition have the same ultimate goal - to win it.
"We haven't won any silverware for a while so it would be great if we could do it this year.
"All we have on our minds now is to perform well and hopefully be playing in the final here at the Kingspan next month."
A win on Saturday would certainly go some way to aiding that effort but Pienaar is expecting a battle against Pat Lam's side, who are bidding for a return to the Champions Cup next season.
"They're a very good side," he affirmed. "They've got quality and Galway is a tough place to get a result.
"They've beaten Leinster and Munster already and they'll be wanting to go for the clean sweep of inter-pros at home. It's always a physical and tough encounter.
I think it's nice to have some of the guys back from Irish camp. They'll bring some energy and enthusiasm to the team and it's exciting to have them back.
"We've been preparing well this week and hopefully that will show on Saturday."
With Leinster, Munster and Glasgow to come in the season's final three games, Ulster know that it will need to.
Meanwhile, Ulster have signed second row Peter Browne and scrum-half Paul Rowley for next season from London Welsh.
Twenty seven-year-old Browne is Irish qualified and can also play in the back row and has had stints at Newcastle Falcons and Harlequins.
Limerick-born Rowley is 26-years-old and began his career at the Munster Academy and played for the province's U19 and U20 sides and was at Plymouth Albion before hooking up with Welsh.
"As we continue to search for Irish-qualified talent that can add competition to our squad, I am pleased with the recruitment of both players," said Team Manager Bryn Cunningham.
"Pete's pedigree and age make him the perfect person to come into an environment that will encourage him to achieve his potential. Paul possesses an all round game with control being at the forefront of his skill set."
Four superb tries from Cooke winger Andy Pollock couldn't prevent Queen's II winning the McCrea Cup final 26-24.