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Gutted Ruan Pienaar doesn't want forced exit to end his link with Ulster

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 01/09/2016

Forced farewell: Pienaar wanted to remain with Ulster but province couldn’t swing deal with IRFU
Forced farewell: Pienaar wanted to remain with Ulster but province couldn’t swing deal with IRFU

Ulster have said they did all they could to keep Ruan Pienaar at the province but found themselves at odds with the IRFU.

Told in February that another extension for their greatest ever import would not be possible, Ulster spent the intervening months pleading a case to their Dublin paymasters before being forced to accept in recent weeks that the South African World Cup winner would be ending his tenure come June.

While referring to the balance of power when it comes to signings is a rarity, Ulster left little doubt as to whether this was a decision coming from Belfast or Irish Rugby HQ in an official statement released yesterday.

IRFU rules will aim to limit Leinster, Munster and Ulster signing non-Irish qualified players in the same position.

Leinster bringing in project player Jamison Gibson-Park from the Hurricanes following the retirement of Eoin Reddan and return home of Isaac Boss would therefore have meant two foreign scrum-halves.

There have, of course, been numerous exceptions over the years. For example, with tighthead often seen as the only position where Ireland's problems to produce indigenous talent rival those at scrum-half, Ulster replaced BJ Botha with John Afoa when the former signed for Munster in 2011.

More recently, Leinster were able to bring Isa Nacewa out of retirement despite the other provinces having non-Irish qualified back-three players in their ranks.

Ulster were desperately hoping, despite this coming season being Pienaar's seventh in Belfast, that dispensation would again be granted.

The player himself wanted to finish his career here, and even remain afterwards having been working towards becoming a UK citizen, but it now seems most likely that a reunion with his former Springbok coach Jake White in Montpellier beckons.

Pienaar, known to be wholly dissatisfied with the developments, assured fans that staying had not been an option available to him and hinted that he could be making a return when his playing days are done.

"I am not moving on for a new adventure or for financial reasons - I wanted to stay and I know that Ulster Rugby did everything it could to keep me in Belfast. Ulster is special to me and my family now, and I would like to thank my wife, Monique, for coming here to support me and for helping to make it home for us," he said.

"I would also like to thank all of the players and staff at Ulster Rugby, the supporters and the general public for their support and encouragement since our arrival. It has been brilliant to see the progress that the organisation has made in recent years, particularly with the new facilities here at Kingspan Stadium. The club has given me a lot and I'd like to be in a position to give something back in the future."

Despite the setback, no good would come from tension between the province and the IRFU so there will be no lingering frustration or damage to the working relationship, as evidenced by the announcement that Georgian international prop Anton Peikrishvili (left) will arrive within the next fortnight to provide temporary relief to Ulster's decimated stocks of tight-head props.

Even still, the IRFU responded in a statement of its own through Performance Director David Nucifora.

"The IRFU recognises the contribution that Ruan Pienaar has made to Ulster Rugby over the seven-year period he will have been with the club, however the IRFU informed Ulster Rugby during the 2015-16 season that it would not sanction a further extension of his contract," said the Australian.

"It is vital for both Ulster and Irish rugby that the province develop indigenous talent in this position and an extension of Ruan's contract would further prevent Irish qualified Ulster players from maximising their developmental potential and becoming stars for both Ulster and Ireland."

Paul Marshall has been a fine servant for Ulster over the years and a more than able deputy but, although he was called to the recent training camp in Carton House, is already 31 and it has been over three years since he was last capped at international level.

David Shanahan, originally from Leinster, has been handed minutes when either Pienaar or Marshall have been absent while Angus Lloyd has impressed in pre-season after making the sizeable jump from Trinity this summer.

Further down in the Academy, there is great hope for Jonathan Stewart but to ask any of these men to fill the boots of a world class talent is unfair.

It remains unclear where Ulster's Operations Manager Bryn Cunningham will be permitted to use the openings in next season's squad - Franco van der Merwe is also out of contract while Wiehahn Herbst is set to become Irish qualified this summer - but searching for Irish-qualified No.9s may well become a priority.

For Pienaar, however, tomorrow's PRO12 opener with Dragons now represents the beginning of the end.

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