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Confident Ulster have cast off the shackles: Ruan Pienaar

By Jonathan Bradley

While the same can't be said for many of the fans shuffling through the Kingpsan Stadium turnstiles, Ruan Pienaar has accepted that his days in an Ulster jersey are numbered.

His next location has been arranged for months, and will be publicly confirmed in the coming weeks, but even if the Ulster hero were to remain in Belfast for the rest of his days, he'd likely never score a better try than he managed against Glasgow last weekend.

A length of the field effort, coming at a time when a score for the opposition would have brought Glasgow into a position to take home two bonus points, the ball moved through nine pairs of hands, starting and finishing with the decorated Springbok.

For Pienaar, who was making his comeback from minor knee surgery after six weeks out, it was the type of rugby he wants to see more of when the side take on Zebre in Parma tomorrow (12.30pm kick-off).

"We have been waiting for moments like that this season to get the crowd going again and it's nice to create opportunities like that," said Pienaar.

"It was enjoyable and we like to play a positive brand of rugby so we just need to be better.

"We have a lot of things to work on but to play the way we did was really good.

"We threw the ball around like we used to and took the shackles off.

"I guess from the team's point of view it was nice walking off the field knowing you'd scored a couple of good tries and that you had created some nice opportunities.

"This is a crucial stage in the PRO12 for us. We need to pick up points and then put ourselves in a good position going forward."

The victory over Glasgow, coming as it did a week on from another bonus-point win against Edinburgh, has restored confidence around the Kingspan, reigniting a play-off push that seemed perilously close to dormant after back-to-back losses to Leinster and Scarlets.

Pienaar stated that the mood in the camp has been lifted hugely since their somewhat ignominious European exit in January.

"For sure, and we need to get that belief back to go forward," he said.

"One thing you've seen from us this season is inconsistency and hopefully we won't go back now to struggling to beat teams or struggling to put up some good performances.

"This should give us some belief and some confidence that we can beat these teams and do it week in, week out."

The return to fitness of Pienaar doubtless has contributed to the improved forecast for this squad, with the instrumental scrum-half quickly back to his best against Glasgow after the lay-off.

Showing his worth at both nine and out-half after Darren Cave's injury necessitated a back-line rejig, Pienaar revealed that his main concern was getting through the full game after realising that all the replacements had been used to cover early injuries.

"I wasn't enjoying it that much because then I realised I was going to play for 80 minutes after I hadn't played in some time so it was a bit of a shock to the system," he said of his stint at 10.

With three games to come against Italian opposition, thanks to the rearranged home game against tomorrow's opponents next month, Ulster have a chance to put the pressure on the four sides above them and avoid missing out on the play-offs for a first time since 2012.

Pienaar admits that the mid-season slump has likely cost the side any hope of a top-two finish and home semi-final, but says the players now fully believe they can overhaul the Scarlets in fourth place.

"We know it's probably going to be impossible to get a home semi-final so we need to put ourselves into a position where we don't rely on other teams in the last two or three games," he said.

"We need to build confidence now, get results and get on a roll.

"I feel the energy has really lifted in training this week, you can feel there's a bit of a difference in training around the group so there is still a lot to play for."

While the likes of Johann Muller failed to get a fairytale send-off in the past, the province will of course be motivated to see Pienaar's Ulster career end in a fitting manner.

The man himself acknowledges it will be very emotional time no matter when the end comes.

"I don't know what's going to happen, I know I'm going to be emotional but I'm trying not to think too much about it," he added.

"I'm going to be emotional and all I can say is thank you to the supporters for what they've shown to me over the years and also since the news broke that I won't be able to stay here.

"Let's just enjoy it and enjoy the support and try to play as well as possible."

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