Ruan Pienaar staying cool as Ulsters woes go on
Despite slipping to seventh in the Guinness Pro12 over the weekend, Ulster scrum-half Ruan Pienaar has insisted that it is far too early in the season for the province to feel pressurised by their current position in the table.
The occasion of the star Springbok's 100th cap on Friday night was marred by an 8-3 defeat to Leinster in Dublin as Les Kiss's side succumbed to a third defeat in their last four games.
With Connacht's season showing no signs of running out of steam after a historic victory over Munster in Thomond Park on Saturday, and qualification for next season's Champions Cup again a meritocracy that will in all likelihood see the Pro12's top six and an Italian representative seal places, the need for results is evident but Pienaar offered a reminder that there is still almost two-thirds of the season to play.
"It's massive for us but I wouldn't that say we're under any pressure," he said of Friday night's visit from Edinburgh.
"There's still a long way to go in this league, still a lot of top teams need to play.
"I don't think we need to stress, it's a long season and it's about getting our performances right, getting the results, and I'm sure that will happen.
"It's a tough couple of weeks ahead but we'll stay positive, keep working hard.
"A lot of the ideas that Doakie and Les (Neil Doak and Les Kiss) have brought in have been really positive and we're going to work hard and hopefully perform well in the next couple of games."
One area Ulster have had relatively few struggles this season is in defence - they have shipped just 10 tries in their eight league games and half of that total came in one game against Munster - and that was continued by giving up just eight points to Leinster but Pienaar admitted frustration that his side have crossed the whitewash just once in the three games they played in November.
Director of rugby Kiss did, however, see signs that the structures that he has attempted to put into place since his arrival at the start of this month are starting to take hold and Pienaar agreed with the sentiment.
"For us, we pride ourselves on our attack, putting teams under pressure," said the man who so often orchestrates Ulster's play with ball in hand.
"For us it's been disappointing but a lot of the things that we worked on during the week have worked well for us in this game.
"I felt we put Leinster under pressure at times but maybe couldn't just hold onto the ball.
"It was tough conditions to play in. We couldn't use the wind to our advantage in the first-half.
"We didn't get good field position.
"We gave a lot of penalties away in the second-half which didn't help and it was always going to be tough in that breeze.
"We played some better rugby in that second-half and there are a lot of positives to take from it.
"We got that one point but very disappointed losing the game.
"For us, it's about being positive, we have another big game on Friday against Edinburgh and hopefully we can build on that."
For the 2007 World Cup winner, who added a bronze medal to his collection last month, the occasion of his 100th provincial cap was blighted, if not ruined, by the defeat.
Just as Iain Henderson found last week when bringing up his half century in the defeat to Saracens, the occasion for Pienaar was one to remember even if the result was not.
"It was very special," he said. "I think when I started with Ulster I never thought I'd get to 100.
"To do it was really a big moment.
"I'm really thankful to everyone I've played with, everyone who is still here and everyone who has moved on.
"It's been a really special journey so far."
That "so far" again implies that Pienaar is keen to extend his stay beyond the summer of 2017 - when his current deal will expire - but, after turning down the advances of three-time Champions Cup winners Toulon when his contract was last up for renegotiation, winning silverware remains foremost on the Bloemfontein man's mind.
"There are a lot of things that I want to achieve with this club.
"I've got two more years on this contract and if Ulster still think that I'm good enough, then we can extend it again but that's all about performing well.
"There's a lot of things I want to improve on this season.
"I want to find some form and play some good rugby. That's the main focus at the moment, performing well," he added.