Heineken Cup: Pienaar so close to the big prize in his first season
The prospect of playing in European rugby’s most challenging and prestigious club competition was a factor in Ruan Pienaar’s decision to join Ulster.
And whereas home-bred players like Bryan Young, Paddy Wallace and Rory Best have been playing for years in the hope of earning a place in the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup, South African Pienaar is within touching distance of that prize in what is his first season.
There is no sense of injustice on the locals’ part, of course. They are delighted that Pienaar and fellow-South Africans BJ Botha, Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenburg and Robbie Diack have helped steer their newly-adopted province to the threshold of the Holy Grail.
Pienaar’s pleasure at being part of the journey is obvious. He is enjoying the run which has seen him start in all five of this term’s Heineken Cup games.
“I’ve been here a while now and I’m getting used to all of the calls and codes, to playing with different guys and building relationships with the loose forwards as well as the backs,” was his explanation for the recent improvement in his game which has seen him produce some of the form which made him a World Cup winner with the Springboks in 2007.
“It just takes time to settle in nicely and I must say that the past couple of games have been really enjoyable.”
Having played at the highest level in and for South Africa, he knows what winning entails. Tellingly, he has been reminding his new colleagues of the formula, too, ahead of Saturday’s crucial Heineken Cup clash away to Italian side Aironi.
“(Last) Saturday (against Biarritz) was a great win for us but I think we just need to come back to earth again and to channel our energies this week.
“There’s a big chance for us to reach the quarter-final but we can’t just sit back and relax. Aironi are a quality side so it’s a big game for us this weekend.
“In the European Cup you play some of the best sides in Europe and that’s who you want to compete with.
“It has been a good challenge for myself and the team. We have done well so far and I think we can continue for another couple of games,” Pienaar.
If he is correct and Ulster can keep going “for another couple of games”, that translates as a semi-final place. Um.