Belfast Telegraph

It hurts to watch Ulster, but I still roar my pals on: Pienaar


By Jonathan Bradley

In the end, Irish rugby's long goodbye was more of a see you soon. Ruan Pienaar, Ulster Rugby's favourite adopted son, is back on somewhat familiar soil today, just five months after his final appearance for the province.

Part of an expensively assembled Montpellier team who will kick-off their much-fancied Champions Cup tilt against Leinster in the RDS this afternoon (1pm kick-off), he admits adapting to his new life in the south of France remains something of a work in progress.

The bitter pill Ulster fans were forced to swallow when their long-serving scrum-half was told to find new employment by the IRFU has been eased somewhat by the performances of John Cooney since his switch from Connacht - and in isolation the flourishing of a freshly minted Irish international, one who at the time of his move could still have declared for Scotland, is exactly what the "succession policy" is in place to achieve - but this was always a scenario with a decidedly human cost.

The Pienaars - Ruan, wife Monique and their two young children Lemay and Jean-Luc - and their attachment to the city they called home for seven years was well documented throughout their stay, and has not dimmed after the switch.

Having spurned lucrative offers from the Top14 to stay with Ulster in the past, Pienaar has always been motivated by his twin pillars of family and Christianity, and to see his kids continue to miss home remains his biggest challenge.

"For them, it's harder than for me," he said. "My days with training are pretty long. I spend most of my time at the stadium and I only get home late. I keep myself busy so there isn't much time to think. For my wife and kids, it's been quite tough.

"In Belfast, it's home for them and they really miss it. My daughter, she's in school here but she asks about going back to her old school on a daily basis, seeing her old friends.

"As a parent, it's tough to go through that. I'm very proud of the way they've managed to make the change.

"We've been here for three months now so hopefully the more we spend time here things will change. There's a lot of things to get used to. We're surviving. It's not too bad."

The language barrier remains tangible, despite having at least mastered the rugby lingo.

With the family having settled in a small village half an hour outside Montpellier, it is the more mundane tasks that remain an adventure.

"It's quite stressful. I've had about four or five French lessons and still feel like I haven't improved at all," said Pienaar.

"Learning the language, the masculine and feminine, past tense and future tense, it's a challenge. It's funny walking around shops and trying to ask for things, I have to use Google a lot."

Through the miracle of satellite TV, he does get a window into the world of his adopted homeland once a week, even if he admits it is strange to watch Ulster play without him.

"I try to watch most of them," he said. "I won't lie, it is tough (to watch) sometimes. I didn't leave on my terms.

"To see the guys playing, it's hard because I had such a great time there. It is hard but I'm a supporter now and wanting them to do well. I've been really happy to see them get off to a good start and hopefully it continues.

"I still follow them, still support them, and I'm still in touch with most of the guys. I said before I left that I'd made lifelong friends and I meant that."

With his Ulster days fondly remembered but in the past, the 2007 World Cup winner's present is with Montpellier and, most immediately, Leinster in the RDS.

A lack of silverware here his lingering regret, more often than not it was the boys in blue who scuppered his best laid plans, the 2012 Heineken Cup final, and the 2013 PRO12 final in the same venue he will grace this afternoon, being the two most glaring examples.

With the billionaire Mohed Altrad signing not just Pienaar but also No.8 Louis Picamoles and All Black out-half Aaron Cruden this summer, the latter missing out today through injury, there is a genuine belief that trophies could be in the offing.

Through plenty of past experience, Pienaar knows not to look beyond Leinster.

"I've played there a lot of times but it'll be strange not playing there with Ulster. There will be a lot of emotions but, as a professional sportsman, you have these disappointments, things don't always go your way," he added.

"I need to perform for Montpellier now. My desire to perform well and play well hasn't changed at all. I want to help the team as much as I possibly can.

"It's still early, too early to talk about winning things. We have a good squad and good coaching staff but we need to keep building through the season. No trophies are won in October."

Should he finally get his hands on a piece of silverware come May, you can guarantee it will be well received in this part of the world he still calls home.

Belfast Telegraph

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