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Why don't we have a successor to Ruan Pienaar? Asks Ulster legend Colin Patterson

Former Lions hero Colin Patterson thinks more needs to be done at schoolboy level if Ulster are to develop another quality scrum-half

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 02/09/2016

Pass master: Colin Patterson believes Ruan Pienaar will be irreplaceable if more is not done to bring on schoolboy scrum-halves
Pass master: Colin Patterson believes Ruan Pienaar will be irreplaceable if more is not done to bring on schoolboy scrum-halves
Colin Patterson

Ulster legend Colin Patterson says the province must find a way to ensure the next Ruan Pienaar comes from within.

When Patterson was injured on the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 1980, fellow Irish international John Robbie filled the void in the final Test. Between that series and Conor Murray's place on the 2013 tour to Australia, however, no nine from these shores would go on to represent the home nations collective.

With IRFU concerns over scrum-half depth at the provinces a factor in the decision not to sanction a contract extension for Pienaar, Patterson wonders why there has been such a dearth of professionals coming through at the position.

"There's obviously a reason behind it," lamented the man who played against Pienaar's father Gysie in 1980.

"New Zealand can produce scrum-half after scrum-half after scrum-half.

"If they can do it, why aren't we? It's not a question of why can't we, it's why aren't we.

"There are certain things to be done to produce more of our own that we're just not doing. We have lots of players with natural ability, real physical specimens, but can we get them doing the basics?

"It's different playing scrum-half. You have to watch and analyse quickly. You have to know when to look for those mismatches. There's an awful lot to it and I don't think there's enough taught. I see young guys kicking a ball straight to the full-back and just wonder why. It's wee things like that."

Patterson, whose son Jonathan was captain of the Regent House squad that was beaten by a Methody team boasting a host of future professionals in the 2008 Schools' Cup final, believes teenagers are not being equipped to progress.

"I've always been of the opinion, mentioning no names, that a team who win the Schools' Cup every year but don't produce players who can be capable of going to play higher up just doesn't correlate.

"If you want to have an army of droids to win the Schools' Cup, and they're going on to Ulster and Ireland, then that's great. But that's not what's happened. Too many players aren't making the grade.

"The school system should have stepped in and said you need to contribute to the greater good and the greater good is that these boys go on to play for Ireland and especially for Ulster.

"The focus is too narrow. Schools' rugby should be used to teach these boys how to play. Conditioning and all that is great and important but don't be fabulous at 17, be fabulous at 21 or 22."

Patterson, who was following hot on the heels of Roger Young when he represented Ulster, Ireland and the Lions, believes that scrum-half, not unlike tight-head prop, is such a specialised position that the wisdom of former greats is invaluable in development.

"If you really really want to be a top notch guy, you need different skills.

"When I was coming through, I got great tips. I would listen to everyone and just pick up little things to improve my game.

"Even at the highest level, on a Lions tour, I was calling back home to get advice and make adjustments.

"When Allen Clarke was first involved in the Ulster set-up, (Mike) Gibson, (Dick) Milliken, (Willie-John) McBride and myself did a wee coaching session with the boys but the scrum-halves in particular just wouldn't listen.

"There was one fella in particular, all he wanted to do was fight with the forwards, be a big, physical player. I told him that he should be tiring them out and then taking them on, showing his skills, but would he listen? Not at all.

"I saw him play for Malone a few times later and he was still doing exactly the same thing."

In the short-term, Patterson, who at 61 is still a practicing solicitor and living in Donaghadee, is sure Ulster will miss the presence of Pienaar behind their scrum when he departs after this season.

"It would have been lovely if we could hold on to someone like him but I understand the playing side and what they're trying to do," he said.

"He's a brilliant player. Marvellous. He has all the skills but he was so calm as well. He played to his strengths. You're talking about one of the very best guys in world rugby. It really was a fantastic signing when he came in. He's so difficult to replace.

"He sprinkled magic. When you were in a real tight corner, when 99 scrum-halves out of 100 couldn't get you out of it, he could.

"He obviously wants to keep playing for a few more years, that's where the glory is and I understand that, but it would be great to maybe see him back later on. As a coach, he'd be perfect."

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