Belfast Telegraph

ulster ready for challenge

By Niall Crozier

Ruan Pienaar has no desire to dwell on Ulster's last visit to Twickenham. The date was May 19, 2012 and Leinster trounced them 42-14 to win the Heineken Cup. Painful memory.

Yet for Pienaar – and Ulster as a team, he insists – there is no requirement to exorcise any 11-month old ghost. The reason, quite simply, is that there is no ghost, hence no need of any exorcism.

"It's not something we have spoken about at all," he replies when asked if that is a past wrong Ulster would like to put right.

"These are two new teams and this is a new challenge so I don't think there is anything about going back there, although it is a special stadium," he reasons.

To him, far more important than Saturday's quarter-final against Saracens being at the same venue as last season's Heineken Cup final trouncing by Leinster is the fact that Ulster are a year older and wiser.

"I believe we have a great team. In the three years that I have been here we have improved so much in our organisation and the way we're playing," he says.

"Guys like Tommy (Bowe) and Roger (Wilson) have come back to Ulster, too, so we believe that we are building something special. I think we have come on.

"But Saturday is about the 80 minutes on the pitch and putting in a performance. It is important that we prepare well this week and then take that preparation onto the pitch and get the result that we want."

Like each of his colleagues and all of the Ulster management team, he acknowledges Saracens' quality.

"They are a very, very good side. They play in a very tough league and they are top of it. They are a clinical team. They are a physical team. They suffocate others and it you can't live with the pressure they put you under you're probably going to come off second best," he warns.

But do not mistake his respect for deference; acknowledgement of a rival's strength is not the same as surrendering to it.

"We have done our preparation on them, so now I think we must just concentrate on what we do and try to make sure that we do it well. It is up to us to put them under pressure also," the Springbok says, confirming his belief that attack is the best form of defence.

That said, he accepts there must be moments when Ulster are forced to defend, for which reason last weekend's heroic rearguard action at the RDS delighted him.

"That was brilliant to see. It was something we had perhaps lacked in the weeks before that when probably we gave away soft tries and soft line-breaks," he reflects.

"We can take a lot of confidence out of last week, but we'll probably need a lot more of it this weekend.

"We've worked hard on defence and attack, but there is always room for improvement and hopefully we can perform even better against Saracens."

And doubtless Saracens ears will have pricked up in alarm on hearing the Ulster scrum-half – who excelled against Leinster – add: "I had not played for a month so I know I can play better than that."

Given his excellence at the RDS last weekend and the wisest of head on old shoulders, Pienaar is likely to be asked to don the shooting boots by Anscombe for the remainder of whatever this terms brings.

His extraordinary ability to perform the scrum-half role like few others in these islands means that Paddy Jackson is often denuded of responsibility.

Some argue, though, that this enlightens Jackson to do what he does best – move the ball and challenge the defence, as he did once more when Ulster downed Leinster with more ease than the gripping finish in Dublin suggested last Saturday.

"Given his success rate in Dublin, Ruan is the obvious choice to take the place-kicks and that should free up Paddy to try and control the match in the way he did against Leinster," offers former Ulster favouriteRyan Constable.

And Pienaar himself deflects suggestions that the 29-year-old winner of 63 South African caps is a mere babysitter to his precocious partner in rhyme.

"For me, it's important to take pressure off any 10 who I play with," explains Pienaar.

Indeed, the French have been masters in developing dominant nines; culturally, Irish rugby has struggled to develop the concept of a 10 being anything but a kicking machine.

"You don't want the out-half to be taking it on themselves all the time. It's all about the blend and I enjoy that part of the game. Myself and Paddy are only really developing as a partnership so there's even more to come from us, I feel.

"The more we play together the better we will get. And that's going to be exciting for us."

Pienaar's hint of a brighter future is encouraging for Ulster fans.

As the Springboks continue to struggle with their own out-half succession policy, the former Sharks man has consistently been linked to a return home.

He was dominant in South Africa's victory against Ireland last November after being hastily drafted into their squad; however, given that the 2015 World Cup is being staged in England, Ulster are hopeful that he may extend his time here once his current deal expires next year.

Such issues do not detain this son of Bloemfontein for now; it is obvious he wants to stay for as long as possible but even more apparent is this World Cup winner's thirst for silverware.

"In a short space of time, Ulster has really improved as a team and as an organisation. It's very exciting for me," says Pienaar.

"But whenever I leave Ulster – and I don't know when that day will be – I want to do it having won silverware here."

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