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Ulster kick in the right direction with Ruan Pienaar

By Niall Crozier

Mark Anscombe had the sort of look you might expect of a father whose first baby had just been born; really excited, very happy.

Ruan Pienaar's decision to enlist for three more years of Ulster service has lifted everybody involved with rugby in the province, the head coach included.

When I asked him to describe how he felt about the decision, the smiling Kiwi returned the question whence it had come.

"How do you feel about it?" he asked.

Although more accustomed to asking questions than answering them, my reply was that if asked to name the most important individual member of the current squad, in that so much revolves around him, I would pick Ruan Pienaar.

Anscombe's reponse was: "I'm sure a whole lot of others would as well; that's why he's important. He's a world-class player. That's why Toulon were looking at him. You don't see them looking at the has-beens of the world."

Clearly delighted to see the deal clinched and signed, Anscombe added: "He's settled and it's good to know that, finally, it is done. It gives him peace, his family peace and it also gives certainty to Ulster in the direction they need to go in recruiting.

"And it gives certainty to others about the quality of the people who are going to be staying on here."

Key word that, quality. As a player, Pienaar oozes it. You never see him panic, because he does not allow anything or anyone to rattle him. Nor do you see him get carried away at times when it's all going right.

A la Kipling he has learned to keep his head when all about him are losing theirs and to treat those two impostors, Triumph and Disaster, just the same.

There is a calm about him, both on the pitch and off it, which suggests he is not given to doubt when certainty is what is required.

Although he is a quiet man – shy, even – one suspects there is a great deal going on inside, even at those moments when there is nothing external to affirm that. Pensive. Deep.

A colleague of mine yesterday likened the enormity of the 29-year-old's decision in rejecting Toulon overtures and instead nailing his colours to the Ravenhill mast to Gareth Bale declining Real Madrid's offer and opting to remain with Tottenham Hotspur. It's a good analogy.

The difference, however, is that Bale did not stay at White Hart Lane when Real president Florentino Perez waved his very sizeable wad of notes and offered a salary of £300,000 a week.

At that, the Welsh star upped and left for those lucrative pastures new. Good luck to him.

Compare and contrast that to Pienaar's reaction to the offer from Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal. True, rugby players are not paid anything like their association football counterparts, but nevertheless the sums the Heineken Cup holders pay their top earners cannot but have been tempting.

Five of the northern hemisphere's 10 best-rewarded players are Toulon employees. Jonny Wilkinson, Toulon's captain, is Europe's best paid player, his monthly salary being £48,155. Bryan Habana earns £42,991 per month. Bakkies Botha and Carl Hayman are on £35,254, while Matt Giteau is paid £34,394.

But Pienaar did not yield to temptation of something in the region of £45,000 every four weeks. Why? In view of his Christian convictions, perhaps the words of Matthew 16 and Mark 8 influenced his thinking: 'What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?'

Pienaar's heart and soul were not in the south of France, so going there would have amounted to prostitution of his talent. His soul – honour, integrity, character, candour – the very things which define who he is and what he is about would have been compromised had he aligned himself to something to which he had no heartfelt attachment.

So not only have Ulster secured the commitment of an outstanding player; they have a man whose probity has been proven anew. He is here, not because his salary is greater than would have been the case elsewhere, but because it feels right.

That is something that cannot be bought, simply because those who possess it – exceptional people like Pienaar – do not sell their principles to the highest bidder.

The vital, vibrant message his decision sends out about Ulster Rugby – indeed, Northern Ireland as a whole – is that this is a good place to be.

Pienaar makes no secret of the fact that the weather here is a downer.

Certainly the climate in the south of France would have been a lot closer to that in which he spent the first 26 years of his life before coming here.

Even so, it is offset by other factors. Here big-name rugby players are not hounded, hassled and harassed as they are in his native South Africa where their celebrity status amounts to something akin to 'ownership' of them by the game's fanatical followers.

Here, away from the game, he and wife Monique can relax with their 18-month old Belfast-born baby daughter, Lemay.

In Ruan Pienaar's eyes, you can't put a price on that.

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