Ruan Pienaar 'will never regret decision to join Ulster'
Pienaar braced for difficult day as Kingspan salutes departing hero
There was a time that Ruan Pienaar never would have believed his last day as an Ulster player would come against Leinster this evening as the 2016-17 season draws to a close.
It was not last summer when it first became apparent that the IRFU were unwilling to sanction one last contract extension for a man who once turned down the riches on offer at Toulon to stay with Ulster, nor even when the decision became public in September and was met with an outpouring of anger from the citizens of his adopted province.
Instead, it was all the way back in 2010 when the finest import Ulster Rugby has ever known would never have imagined he'd have been here this long.
"My wife and myself drove up to Ravenhill for the first time and it looked a lot different back then," he recalled of his first visit to the place he has called home for the last seven years.
"She asked what we had gotten ourselves into and I probably thought the same.
"It was a shock but I can honestly say I'll never regret coming here. I've loved every minute of it and it won't be easy to say goodbye this weekend."
After admitting that, even having struggled with the back complaint that forced him off early last week, he was never going to miss the opportunity to pull on his white jersey one last time, he is expecting a tear or two to be shed before the day is out.
"It's been tough," he noted. "It's all hitting home now. A couple of months ago, it still felt like it was in the distant future but now it's here.
"It's going to be a difficult day. I hope the players who have had the opportunity to stay realise how special this place is.
"We've really got the best of the best here. For Roger Wilson as well, and Neil Doak and Allen Clarke, who are leaving too, there will be a lot of tears between us because Ulster has been a special place in all of our lives."
At yesterday's captain's run, it certainly felt like the end of an era for the talismanic scrum-half with Pienaar surrounded by his nearest and dearest.
Three years ago, when another Ulster icon was preparing for his final outing, it was Pienaar who sat with Johann Muller as the burly Springbok was overcome with the emotion of his imminent departure.
And having flown from the farm in South Africa to repay the favour and surprise his old friend, Muller was on hand yesterday to greet Pienaar as training finished up (below).
Metres away, as Pienaar's wife Monique watched on, his father Gysie, himself a former Springbok of some repute, practised kicking with the 2007 World Cup winner's young son Jean-Luc.
"It's been emotional already with my dad over and Johann Muller surprising me," Pienaar said.
"My dad has taught me everything I know and he knows how much this club means to me.
"It was a surprise with Johann too, nobody knew.
"I haven't seen him since he left here and it's really special that he's made the effort."
Like so many that will be in attendance at Kingspan today, Pienaar still struggles to get his head around the decision to force his exit, especially in light of some of the deals signed at other provinces since.
But while he clearly has his own theories, he refuses to be drawn on why he has been treated differently.
"I think you have to respect a decision even if you don't agree with it," he said.
"You have seen a couple of funny signings at other clubs which would contradict the reasons why I have to leave but I've just got to respect it and I've got to move on."
When we will see him back on these shores became a point of debate almost as soon as his departure was confirmed, but while the man himself would love to return in the years to come, he hopes it's not before the end of his playing career.
For Pienaar, the nightmare scenario would see Ulster and his new employers, soon to be confirmed as Montpellier, paired together in the Champions Cup.
"It would be tough to play Ulster wearing different colours, I might have to pretend that I'm injured," he laughed.
"For some reason I have a funny feeling that it may happen. It would be tough, to play against all your friends.
"This last game has been on my mind constantly the last few months so that I haven't thought too much about what happens next.
"I'd love to come back to Belfast one day. My kids, this is all they know and this is home for us.
"For now, I have all the memories and good friends to hold on to and remember it all forever."
And you can be sure that, for as long as they play rugby in the Belfast stadium that so shocked him upon his arrival, Ulster will never forget him either.