| 1.9°C Belfast

Why Kingspan is a home from home for Ulster fans' favourite Pienaar

When Ruan Pienaar arrived in Belfast some five-and-a-half years ago, few would have dared to dream the relationship with Ulster would last this long.

Attending the famed Grey College as an adolescent during the 1990s, Pienaar's rugby career began with the youngster knowing only that he wanted to emulate his father Gysie Pienaar and become a Springbok.

Back then, there could be few ambitions of forging a career in the northern hemisphere while he knew little of the city where he would eventually feel so at home.

Now 31 years old, with two extensions already added to his initial deal and his latest contract set to expire in 2017, the World Cup-winner has spoken in recent interviews about staying with Ulster even longer should the opportunity arise.

For a fanbase who long assumed they would lose their star man, if not to big-spending French outfits like Toulon, who came calling in 2013, then to a return to his home town Sharks, the comments were hugely welcome.

Perhaps the call of home has been easier to stave off for Pienaar given the healthy South African influence at Kingspan Stadium.

Were the scrum-half to close his eyes when preparing to spin a pass from behind the ruck, hearing the accents calling for the ball could leave him thinking he was back in Bloemfontein.

With Franco van der Merwe another who came to Belfast having worn the green jersey of South Africa, Louis Ludik and Wiehahn Herbst will qualify for Ireland on residency next summer while Rob Herring and Robbie Diack already have.

With the likes of Johann Muller, BJ Botha and Robbie Kempson having already been and gone, the influence of the Rainbow Nation over the northernmost province has been evident for years.

"I think traditionally we like to work hard and value where we can," Pienaar mused when asked why his countrymen have proven such a success in this far-off country.

With another to join the ranks next season, star flanker Marcell Coetzee who will arrive this summer, Pienaar is looking forward to seeing that influence grow.

"It's exciting to see the signing," enthused the man who fills his time away from the field with church and the burgeoning Ballybosch wine brand he started with teammate Diack.

He said: "Marcell will work hard on and off the pitch. He's down to earth and he'll slot right in."

Pienaar, who remains the yardstick by which foreign signings are measured, thinks the 24-year-old can make a big impact on the field.

"I've played with him in a couple of Test matches and he's a quality player.

"He'll add a lot to this team."

While such matters are for next season, in the here and now Pienaar starts for Ulster tomorrow against Cardiff hoping to finally shake off the effects of a virus that had him laid low in recent weeks.

A dedicated family man - Pienaar married his wife Monique six years ago last month and they have a daughter named Lemay - the scrum-half joked that at least he didn't bring the illness home but admitted he was still feeling the effects.

"I was a man down for a couple of days," he said.

"I'm slowly getting back to full fitness; it's been a frustrating month for me.

"I'm just excited to being back playing and then looking forward to getting back to 100% again. Then we can hopefully get a good couple of performances."

Ulster will certainly need them as they prepare for a tough run-in to their Pro12 campaign.

With Cardiff and Zebre all that stand between the side and a belated two-week break, Les Kiss' side face Glasgow, Connacht, Leinster and Ospreys among their last five games when the league resumes.

For Pienaar, the desire to win an elusive trophy will have been building over the course of many near-misses in recent years but he knows that Ulster must be a vastly improved outfit from the one who succumbed to Scarlets at home last week during the season's final months.

"There's a lot of tough games but I think we'll take this game on Sunday and get a good performance and build momentum," he said.

"The last month has been frustrating, creating chances and not finishing them.

"We need to show a lot more patience, keep the ball, and make better decisions.

"If there's one thing I'd highlight it's that we're creating chances just not finishing them. It's obviously disappointing, especially to lose at home. It's always a place where we pride ourselves and back ourselves.

"To be honest we haven't done as well there this season as we would like to.

"That's the beauty of rugby though, seven days is a long time. There's been a lot of analysis and we've had a good look at ourselves.

"Hopefully that will show on Sunday. It's a big one for us. We have to step right into it against Cardiff this week. Everyone is excited to get going and we'll be out to put up a good performance."

The South African star rarely provides anything less.

Belfast Telegraph