RaboDirect Pro12: Pienaar can kick Ulster out of the doldrums
On Saturday he returns to the place that memorably helped catapult his first season firmly towards the heights of excellence that his arrival had initially promised.
Parc y Scarlets provided the backdrop, on a rain-lashed Friday night last February, when Ruan Pienaar stepped up and, with the last play of the game, somehow hit a match-winning 55-metre penalty which not only resuscitated Ulster’s league campaign but also showed that the then new signing was definitely warming to his role north of the equator.
From there, his input into Ulster’s cause continued to increase with the full package frequently on show.
His lengthy pass, his accurate tactical and place kicking, an eye for a gap and very good defensive work all being smartly supplemented by his added ability to also cover and win games from the out-half position.
It was little surprise when he secured last season’s Player of the League award, and got called in to the South Africa squad for the Tri-Nations and World Cup, but Pienaar doesn’t buy into all the praise. Modesty is the default position when it comes to the 27-year-old publicly dissecting his own game, though it’s clear he is hungry to get back playing for Ulster again.
“It was a great experience,” is how he matter-of-factly describes that last-gasp 18-16 win at the Scarlets last season.
“But hopefully it won’t come down to that again,” he adds and you can empathise with the pressure of that kick even though the recently returned Springbok seems to thrive on these knife-edge situations. After a quiet and rather uneventful World Cup — he only made two appearances off the bench for South Africa — his priority is get back playing again and wearing the Ulster shirt clearly means a lot to him.
“It’s really nice to be back here again and I’m definitely looking forward to getting back onto the field,” Pienaar says before adding that while in New Zealand he kept a close eye on how Ulster’s season was progressing.
“We (himself and fellow Springbok World Cup squad member Johann Muller) were elated when we heard the first three results and then really, really disappointed to hear the other ones especially losing at home to Treviso because we pride ourselves on our performances at Ravenhill.”
You sense that much has been said and done on the training field this week with Pienaar and Muller bringing added bite and direction to Ulster’s preparation.
“We had the same problem this time last year,” Pienaar says, referring to a slump in form, “and we need to get ourselves back playing well again and hopefully the guys coming back in can do so.”
Having said that, he then goes on to urge caution regarding expectations over his own form before, as is widely expected, he wears an Ulster shirt for the first time this season at the Scarlets on Saturday.
“For me, it’s really been five months without rugby as I have only played two games in that time and I probably would have liked to have had more game time before the European (Heineken Cup) games start,” he states.
“I’m looking forward to playing but it might take some time to get sharp again, but it will be great being out on the field touching the ball again and getting stuck in again.”
If anyone can drag Ulster out of the doldrums then Pienaar can help provide the much-needed spark.
“It’s going to be a massive challenge for us and we need to gel quickly as a team and get that momentum going,” he added.
At least he’s back, but how Ulster now need dig out another of those astonishing results.