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Ulster rugby's Ruan Pienaar will be missed as a man, not just as a player

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 01/09/2016

Fan favourite: Ruan Pienaar greets the Kingspan Stadium crowd
Fan favourite: Ruan Pienaar greets the Kingspan Stadium crowd

Stood in the security area of an obscure airport, Ruan Pienaar walked across to a dejected team-mate, slung a comforting arm over his shoulder and patted him on the chest.

The dispirited man in question had just endured one of the days that sportsmen must dread, an horrendous team performance in a key game that was rescued only after his substitution.

While his showing had been no worse than many others on the day, his exit from the stage had been the catalyst for change, a reality that showed all over his face.

As the relieved squad waited patiently to board their homeward-bound plane, it seemed to speak volumes that it was Pienaar with the consoling gesture intended to put a spring back in the step.

It was the type of snapshot into the inner workings of a team you occasionally get when covering the same group week on week and ties in with what is so often said about Ulster's departing Springbok - he is one of the nicest men you are likely to meet.

Ulster will miss Pienaar immensely on the field, he has been the calming hand on the tiller at Kingspan since his arrival in 2010, but it is his presence around the province that has guaranteed his status as Ulster's most valued import.

Much has been said about the willingness with which the team's newest superstar, Charles Piutau, has thrown himself into life in his new home but it is a blueprint that was established, in tandem with Johann Muller, by the man from Bloemfontein.

Speaking last year, he spoke of how he was seeking UK citizenship so his young children could have the option of being educated in Belfast's school system. Retirement in Northern Ireland, where he and team-mate Robbie Diack have also established a successful wine brand, seemed to be in his future.

Not to be, as it turns out, but of course many expected he would have long since left these shores.

As his departure became official yesterday, it coincided with football's transfer deadline day, now a live TV event that perfectly encapsulates the excesses of sport as presenters gleefully watch the spend on players tick over £1billion.

The contrast to Pienaar could hardly be more stark.

When offered mega-bucks to sign for Mourad Boudjellal's version of the Galacticos in 2013, Pienaar opted to stay put.

While Toulon went on to dominate European rugby, twice adding the Champions Cup to the Heineken Cup they had won that spring, Pienaar's trophy cabinet remained bare with his wallet that little bit lighter.

Of course he was well compensated at Ulster, but the proof was there that this was not a man for whom money was the bottom line.

Motivated hugely by his Christian faith, Pienaar has frequently stated that he was guided by his religious convictions.

The decision was taken out of his hands this time around.

For a player so popular, the coming season will now almost take on the qualities of a farewell tour, Ulster fans knowing that memories like those of his complete domination of Leicester in 2013, or the 19-point, match-winning haul against Glasgow on his debut, will soon be just that. Memories.

Come June, Ruan Pienaar and family will have departed for pastures new and, regardless of the how or why, Ulster will be a poorer place for it.

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