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Ruan Pienaar: We love it here so much, that is why it is really hard to say goodbye... but we are 99% sure that we will be back one day to live in Belfast

 

By Jonathan Bradley

As he prepares for a new life in France, Ulster's South African legend Ruan Pienaar reflects on seven years in NI, a place that took him to its heart and where his kids were born, and promises we haven't seen the last of him.

As he sits in Kingspan Stadium, the recently refurbished rugby ground in the east of the city he has called home for the past seven years, Ruan Pienaar surveys the Belfast skyline.

He can see Samson and Goliath - the giant cranes that caught his eye when his first flight here landed at George Best Belfast City Airport - and Stormont Estate, where he visited last week and was greeted warmly by DUP leader Arlene Foster on the steps of Parliament Buildings.

As is all too often the case, he can see the grey clouds, too, a feature so regular that many thought him mad when he turned down the big money and permanent sunshine on offer at mega-rich Toulon in France to stay in Northern Ireland and with Ulster in 2013.

But most importantly for the 33-year-old, he can see the rows upon rows of houses that stretch all the way to the outer reaches of the city in Knock.

And for Pienaar, that means home.

While he may never have lost his South African accent, it is there where the Bloemfontein native, wife Monique (32) and their two children Lemay (4) and Jean Luc (2) have made so many memories over the years.

Indeed, for the children, who were both born after rugby had brought the Pienaars to Northern Ireland, it is all they know.

And even though the family will be forced to leave before the end of next month - thanks to a controversial decision made by the sport's governing body - their love affair with Belfast is set to live on.

"We enjoy it so much here and that's why it's so sad to say goodbye," says the man who ended his final Ulster game two weeks ago with tears streaming down his cheeks and his children in his arms.

"To see my wife happy, to see my kids happy, that's all I want for me, and they're happy in Belfast.

"The only thing I want to see is smiles on my wife's face and smiles on the faces of my kids. As long as they're happy, that makes the job for me a lot easier. "At the moment for us, we're 99% sure that we'll come back to Belfast and live here one day."

Known for playing with a spectacular calm when on the pitch, it's perhaps no surprise that the hustle and bustle of a bigger city would not be for the man who already had a World Cup winner's medal before making the then-unfashionable move to Belfast.

And while he enjoys the more relaxed pace on offer in Northern Ireland, it's the people in his adopted home that have left him and his young family so attached to the city they will soon swap for Montpellier in France, mere miles from the Mediterranean coast.

While many born and bred in this part of the world surely think they'd love to make such a move, Pienaar could hardly expect to miss the province more.

"I think when we first arrived it was a big move and we weren't sure what to expect," he says.

"As you get to know the people though, you realise what a special place it is. It's the people who make it, we've been supported so well. The people are always willing to help you in some way or another and that's what makes it special. That's what I'm used to in South Africa.

"Where I grew up, it's a small community, everyone knows each other too and there's always help. That's what we've found in Belfast. There's definitely similarities to South Africa, but that's what makes it special, too.

"It's not the biggest place in the world and that's what I enjoy about it, I think. I wouldn't be able to live in a place that was too busy. Ten minutes away and you're in some nice village somewhere.

"That's what's so nice, two hours away and it can feel like you're in a completely different place.

"We've been up the North Coast and it's somewhere very special. Every time we have family over we drive up the coastal road up to Portstewart and Portrush. It's a great country and we've tried to see all over it.

"It's such a nice place, the people are great and it's a terrific place to play here. Everything about it has been a positive experience."

Many who have emigrated to Northern Ireland tell tales of shocked family members who, recalling old news reports when hearing the plans, think their loved ones are headed to live in something akin to a war zone, but back in South Africa Pienaar and his relatives had little knowledge of the country to which they would go to form so permanent an attachment.

Having learned of the Troubles only since arriving in 2010, Pienaar could scarcely believe he was reading about the same place as the one where he has brought up his young family.

"To be honest I had no awareness of the history of the country, it's just what I've learned the last few years. I haven't seen much of it since I arrived.

"It all seems to be in the past now. I think most people are happy with the way things are going for Northern Ireland and, for us, we were the same.

"It's a great place to bring up a family. The schooling system in Northern Ireland is one of the top in the UK, too, and they know that they'll get a good upbringing in their education.

"We have to focus on the next chapter now, but Belfast is in our planning. We'd love to be back here in a few years."

With a two-year contract, that may be extended to a third season, Pienaar's time in France will likely see him through until the end of his playing days.

A tough crossroads for any professional sportsman, like his father before him - Gysie Pienaar coached rugby after also playing for South Africa's national side - staying involved in the game is the career path of most interest to one of the true Ulster greats once he decides to hang up his boots.

He would like to return to Belfast and pass his knowledge on to a new generation, but even if that is not what the future holds, Pienaar, who has also been an active member of his church throughout his time here and is strongly motivated by his Christian faith, still expects a return to these shores.

"This is my last few years of playing and at this stage of your career you do get nervous about what the future will hold and what you will do next," he admits.

"I grew up watching my dad coach and I grew up next to rugby pitches. I've been involved for so many years now, but it's coming to an end.

"I'd love to stay involved with the game after my playing days. I'd love to come back here and my wife would love to come back here.

"If the opportunity came up where I could give something back to this club (Ulster), I would grab it with both hands.

"Hopefully, I get the chance, it's in my blood, it's what I enjoy. I'll still want to kick a ball and be involved.

"Hopefully I can add value in a different way. Even if it's not for rugby, I'd love to move back to Belfast.

"This is home for us," he added.

Having been such a big part of Ulster, it seems Ulster is now a big part of him.

Belfast Telegraph

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