Belfast Telegraph

'There is more than just the player': Ruan Pienaar urges IRFU to rethink contract policy

Going strong: Cheetahs’ Ruan Pienaar at yesterday’s
PRO14 event in Cardiff
Going strong: Cheetahs’ Ruan Pienaar at yesterday’s PRO14 event in Cardiff

By Cian Tracey

Over two years on from being pushed out the door at Ulster, and the subject is still very raw for Ruan Pienaar.

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He and his family have since moved on with their lives, but it has been difficult to shake the fact that they had happily made Belfast their home and wanted to remain there until the IRFU intervened.

In the week that Alby Mathewson has succumbed to the same fate, Pienaar can certainly relate to his Kiwi counterpart, who was forced to leave Munster despite both parties wanting to extend his stay.

Just as he did in 2017, the union's performance director David Nucifora had other ideas as he looks to promote Irish players.

Nucifora is not in this job to make friends, and he certainly didn't make many at the Kingspan when he brought an end to the Ulster career of one of the crowd favourites.

For all that Pienaar accepts that it was a business decision, he believes there is a better way to go about it because families' lives are uprooted.

"It's a tough one," the 88-times-capped South African international maintained.

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"You can't really say what you felt at the time but you've got to respect the decision that David Nucifora made.

"I guess at the time it would have been nice to finish my career at Ulster, but in a few years' time, I'll sit down and think about my career and everything that happened, and you'll think it wasn't too bad.

"I had seven great seasons with Ulster and really enjoyed my time. It was very sad to leave there for me and the family. But it is what it is, you've got to move on.

"Somehow I've made my way back to South Africa, where I grew up and the team I supported when I was young. It's funny how things work out in life. You can plan, but it doesn't always work out that way.

"As adults and parents you move on, but when you have a young family that is happy and in a school and that has made their friends, to tell them you have to leave is hard. It's tough.

"We had to go through that. I had my family with me for one season in Montpellier and then they came back to Belfast because they didn't enjoy it and my wife struggled. Going forward, it would be nice if they (IRFU) just think of the whole package.

"It is probably business decisions but there is more than just the player. There is a person with a family that is happy and enjoying life and making a contribution. It's tough if it is like that but I guess you have got to respect that and move on."

There will be plenty more similar cases in the coming years as the IRFU look to promote their own players, but Mathewson's case again highlighted the ruthless nature of professional sport.

"I can probably sense his frustration as well, I actually just heard about it yesterday," Pienaar continued.

"He has been great when Conor Murray has been away, he's probably been one of their best players and I'm sure that he's enjoying Munster because it's a great club to be involved with. I'm sure he will be very disappointed to leave the club.

"It's a tough one because you get guys that really enjoy their time with clubs and they've performed well and then they've been asked to leave when they really want to stay. It's a tough one but you probably can't really argue as a player with that."

After an unhappy two-year spell in Montpellier, Pienaar has returned to South Africa where he is finishing out his playing days with the Cheetahs.

This was never part of the grand plan as he wanted his kids to grow up in Belfast, but after Pienaar's sister Rene sadly passed away last February, he is glad to be back amongst family.

At 35, he is still going strong, yet he knows Father Time catches up with everyone.

"If you'd asked me 12 months ago, I'd probably have been back in Belfast and probably have retired because France was an interesting experience... that's a good way to say it," he said.

"I still enjoy the game, I still enjoy getting up in the mornings and challenging myself on the weekends. I enjoy the game and once you lose that, I think it's time to hang up the boots.

"Apart from that, it's nice to spend time with the family again and the kids have settled in nicely. As long as they're happy, it makes it a lot easier as parents.

"We had a tough start to the year with my sister passing away in the car accident, so that sort of prompted the decision of going back. Family has always been important to me and my wife, so it's nice to go back to South Africa, to where I grew up and most of the family is still there. Then to be involved in the Cheetahs and still playing, I'm very grateful for the opportunity they've given me."

Having won the World Cup with the Springboks in 2007, Pienaar knows the positive impact the recent success in Japan can have on this group of players, and more importantly the country as a whole.

"It means a lot to the nation," he added.

"There is a lot of negativity around and a lot of problems back home but sport has a way to unite people and that is exactly what it has done again. We have seen that after '95 and 2007 and now to see that again is brilliant. People are still happy and celebrating so it is great to see."

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