Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Ruan Pienaar relishing Ulster Rugby's Euro push

Ruan Pienaar is delighted to be back on Ulster duty against Treviso at Ravenhill  tomorrow
Ruan Pienaar is delighted to be back on Ulster duty against Treviso at Ravenhill tomorrow

Last Friday was all rather novel in that Ruan Pienaar didn't have to go about the usual routine of attuning himself to playing a match, whether it was to the rhythms of Ulster's preparation or indeed those required by South Africa.

Instead, while other members of the squad were involved in the trek to Italy to take on Zebre, Pienaar was getting to spend some rare down-time with wife Monique and daughter Lemay at a Belfast gym's swimming pool.

Fast forward four days and the 29-year-old would undoubtedly rather have been back in the water again, surrounded by people who largely couldn't care less what he does for a day job, than having to shoot the breeze with a media corps intent on extracting quotable observations on tomorrow's meeting with Treviso in the third round of games in the Heineken Cup.

But what can he do? After all, he's a man very much in demand especially after opting to stick around Ravenhill for another three years.

Last month was pretty crazy with Pienaar hooking up with the Springbok squad for their autumn schedule and back to living out of his kit bag and staying in hotels in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Paris – and all only a month or so after fulfilling his national commitments in the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship.

And the treadmill shows little sign of lessening with Pienaar determined to keep in the frame to hopefully make South Africa's World Cup squad in 2015, though recently playing second fiddle to Fourie du Preez – Pienaar got one start, in the last game against France – during the unbeaten three-Test tour was hardly the ideal outcome.

"It's good to be involved with the Boks and it's something that's dear to my heart and I'll try to stay involved in it for as long as I possibly can," he says.

"It was nice to get a run out in the last game but it's really nice to be back here now and it's good that I'll now be playing for Ulster," he says, keen to focus on the job at hand.

Which brings us neatly to his last outing for the province at the start of November when he endured one of those rare occasions when things didn't go according to plan as a despairingly poor Ulster lost 17-9 at the Scarlets and Pienaar was wide of the target with two seemingly straightforward efforts from five shots at goal.

He laughs at the memory before venturing his opinion on a thoroughly forgettable trip to west Wales.

"Ah yes, that was horrible," he says.

"It wasn't a great night but you learn from those experiences. It's not always going to go your way and that's the way the game goes.

"It's a rollercoaster ride but the great thing is that you can get another chance to get it right the next weekend."

That next weekend, though, was spent on bench duty as South Africa saw off Wales at the Millennium Stadium and, of course, he hasn't been employed as a place kicker since his last outing for Ulster.

So, with that in mind, will he be lining up the kicks tomorrow night on his first game back at Ravenhill since the win over Cardiff Blues, at the end of October, or will Paddy Jackson be the man?

"I think that Paddy will probably continue and, yes, I haven't been at it for a few weeks," he says.

"And he's kicking so well so Paddy will probably continue," Pienaar adds before mentioning that only the long range efforts seem likely to be his for the taking should Jackson's kicking remain in good shape.

While, on paper, it may appear that back-to-back European games with Treviso are hardly the most stressful fixtures that Ulster could be facing in their push to keep setting the pace in Pool Five, Pienaar is quick to point out that, despite September's PRO12 victory over the Italians, the sides ended deadlocked last March when the visitors made off with a 29-29 draw.

And then, of course, back in 2011 during the World Cup, Treviso racked up at Ravenhill and grabbed an historic victory to stun the then Brian McLaughlin-coached Ulster.

"We're in a good position in the group and we now need two good results," Pienaar states. "We know we'll need to be accurate in what we need to do to go to get a good result.

"But look, Treviso is not an easy game and they're improving game by game and they're pushing teams right to the end.

"Yes, we've got some injuries but I think that's just part of the game. I still think we'll have a decent side and we'll put in a good performance."

The memory drifts back to this sequence of European games this time last year when Ulster failed to back up their seismic victory over Northampton Saints at Franklin's Gardens and the English Premiership side snatched an unexpected 10-9 win at Ravenhill the following week.

From there, Ulster's bid to secure a home quarter-final always looked dodgy and so it proved, with their Heineken Cup adventure ending at Twickenham when an injury-hit side succumbed to Saracens.

"We don't want to let that happen again," is Pienaar's understandable response.

"We've got a lot to play for and it would be great to get a home quarter-final with everything due to be finished here," he says glancing over at the one remaining stand now nearing completion at the new-look Ravenhill.

And referring to this season's eye-catching result, the stunning win at Montpellier, Pienaar adds: "We need to back that up here this weekend and show that we're contenders. We're raring to go."

You sense that he's now fully back in the swim again for Ulster.

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