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Departing Pienaar 'will always put Ulster ahead of myself'

By Jonathan Bradley

As the calendar nears its flip to 2017, Ruan Pienaar is all too aware that his Ulster exit looms ever closer.

In many ways, the beginning of the end came as soon as it was announced that the IRFU had decreed he was not to have his contract renewed at the end of this season, but the march towards his forced departure will seemingly quicken in the coming weeks.

A last trip to Leinster and the RDS, where so many of his and Ulster's silverware aspirations have come to a shuddering halt, will come on the final day of 2016, while, if Ulster do not defy the odds and emerge from their Champions Cup pool, his final European game for the province will come and go just three weeks later.

Indeed, tonight he faces Connacht for the last time in a fixture that he, unsurprisingly given the westerners' record in Belfast, has never lost at Kingspan Stadium.

"There are a lot of lasts to come," he said ruefully ahead of the visit from the champions.

"For me it is just about enjoying it but as we get closer to the end of the season the more the emotions will show.

"The team comes first though, if I put my personal goals and interests ahead of the team, I think I am doing the wrong thing.

"For me, it is just doing what I do every week to try and prepare as well as possible and try to produce as good a performance as I can for the team.

"Hopefully that is good enough to help my team-mates perform well and get the result.

"For me it is about enjoying it every time I put the Ulster jersey on. My time is running out and I only have a handful of games left.

"This season my goal has to be enjoy it and not put too much pressure on myself performance-wise.

"I train as hard as I can and then try to enjoy the game as much as possible."

The scrum-half admits that has occasionally been hard as Ulster struggle to meet their goals both domestically and in Europe.

"It is tough when you are not playing well and not getting the results," he added.

"We still have a game in hand against Zebre and a win this week against Connacht will be massive for us going into the new year refreshed and on a high.

"There is a lot to play for and all the guys are raring to go and looking forward to it."

And while Connacht have failed to pick up a victory in Belfast since 1960, Pienaar has been hugely impressed by how Pat Lam (right), another to leave these shores come the end of the year, has transformed life at the Sportsground in recent seasons.

"I don't know what they think of it," the 88-times capped World Cup winner said of the visitors' poor record in Belfast.

"I'm sure they've probably mentioned it and they want to make history and beat Ulster here for the first time. We haven't touched on it.

"Pat Lam has done something right through this team and the way he wants to play. The players have adapted well and have bought into the plan and they're comfortable playing in that way.

"They're a good team, they won the league last year and that says a lot.

"It's a big challenge, its Christmas, it's an interpro and both teams will be ready to go.

"For us, it's the next game of a big month and-a-half ahead of us.

"We have to trust our processes and the way we want to play, execute as well as possible and the scoreboard will look after itself."

With a wind warning in place right up until kick-off, conditions are hardly set to be ideal for attractive rugby, with Pienaar aware that he and half-back partner Paddy Jackson will have to battle the elements as well as the opposition to move their side around the park.

"It's a big challenge for us and we had a tough time against them in Galway," he added.

"I think with these interpros they're always a big challenge, hopefully as a team we can perform well.

"I think the weather is supposed to be bad so we might not play that way, but we'll adapt.

"They're a team that like to hold onto the ball, and so do we, but we'll see how the weather is on the night and adapt accordingly.

"We've played in it a couple of years now so hopefully we can adapt and execute as well as possible.

"As a nine and ten, and for the kickers, it's difficult if the wind is pretty bad and the weather isn't great but I think that's always going to be the case this time of year."

One thing, perhaps, he won't miss next season.

From Belfast Telegraph