Ruan Pienaar: I can't believe I have to leave Ulster
Ulster's Ruan Pienaar has admitted that being forced to uproot his young family has made the IRFU's decision to end his time in Belfast all the more difficult to stomach.
The South African star has been a hero to the Ulster faithful since his arrival at the Kingspan Stadium back in 2010 and, especially after rejecting a big-money move to then European champions Toulon to stay three years ago, had expected to see out his career here.
After expressing his desire for a new deal following last season's Guinness PRO12 semi-final defeat to Leinster in May, the IRFU, however, swiftly ended such hopes thanks to concerns over a lack of emerging indigenous talent at Pienaar's scrum-half position.
The 32-year-old's initial reaction was one of disbelief.
"Because I have been here for so long, I think some people might have thought this would never happen," he said at the launch of BT's Speed Test in Victoria Square yesterday. "That was certainly the case for me. I didn't think it would be a problem because this has been home to me for six years.
"I went to Bryn (Cunningham, Ulster Operations Director) after the semi-final and it was the first time we really talked about negotiations.
"I said I would like to stay and I think the feedback from the IRFU was fairly negative from the beginning. From there onward I knew it was going to be tough to stay.
"There were glimpses of hope that I'd be able to stay but it's in the past now. I have to focus on performing well.
"There's some cases that might be in the same boat soon so we'll see what happens if they stick to this rule. If they do, then that's fair play.
"I can understand where they're coming from as well so I have to respect that I guess and try and move on.
"It's sad that this will be my last season but I want to enjoy the last couple of months that I have left."
If Pienaar seems relatively measured regarding the realisation that a decision on his playing future was taken out of his hands - "I think if you see me at home it might be a bit different," he added with a rueful grin - the real source of frustration comes from what the upheaval will mean for his young daughter.
Lemay, who was born in Northern Ireland, is just four years old and began primary school in Belfast only last month. Moving when she has become so settled in Northern Ireland is the biggest wrench for Pienaar.
"My boy (two-year old Jean Luc) is still young enough to adapt fairly quickly, but my daughter's at an age where she's at school and she enjoys it and the friends she's made," said Pienaar (right with Lemay and Jean Luc).
"She has started P1 just now so it's a big stage in her life and she's really enjoying her time here.
"She's the one in my mind I want to keep as happy as possible.
"As long as the family's happy, my wife's happy and the kids are happy, that's my biggest concern."
While understanding that come June he will have pulled on the white jersey for a final time, the Springbok, who is rested for this evening's trip to face Connacht in Galway, envisages returning to Northern Ireland when his playing days are done and has already sounded out Ulster CEO Shane Logan about a future in coaching.
"I mentioned to him that I'd love to come back and get involved with the club some way," he said. "I don't think I'll be back here as a player, but hopefully in some way.
"The family is happy here in Belfast and if we get an opportunity to come back to Belfast, we'll definitely look at that.
"It's in our plans at the minute. We don't know what the future holds in the next two or three years but if we get an opportunity we'll definitely look at coming back here.
"Rugby is all I know. My dad (Gysie) coached and played, and I grew up on the field. I'd like to give something back. I'd like to try and get involved in business outside rugby as well, so we'll see what happens."
In the more immediate future, Pienaar insists that his next destination remains unknown despite the widely held belief that he has already decided upon Montpellier and a switch to the Top 14.
"We're still busy sorting that out," he said. "We have a couple of months to sort it out and hopefully we'll make a good decision. It's all about the family and what they're comfortable with. There's a couple of options and we'll try to make the best decision to help the family moving forward."
BT, official communications partner to Ulster Rugby, yesterday launched the BT Speed Test, a test of kicking power and accuracy, with help from Ulster Rugby stars Ruan Pienaar, Chris Henry and Stuart Olding. BT is giving Ulster supporters the chance to see who has the biggest kicking boot at a selection of Ulster Rugby home games this season, starting on October 22 when Ulster take on the Exeter Chiefs.