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Ulster's Pienaar era ends on wave of emotion at Kingspan Stadium

Ulster 17 Leinster 13

BY Jonathan Bradley

In what was always going to be a difficult day at Kingspan Stadium, Ulster Rugby signed off their 2016/17 campaign with a win over semi-final bound Leinster.

Emotions were high as Ruan Pienaar bade a tearful and forced farewell to the place he has called home for the past seven years, while Roger Wilson's (below) 221st and final Ulster appearance was marked with a man-of-the-match award and a rare try in the 17-13 win.

With Les Kiss's side finishing one point behind the fourth-placed Ospreys in the final standings, and outside of the play-offs for a first time since 2012, the win, which also saw Andrew Trimble cross after a Pienaar cross-kick, while Leinster replied with a penalty try, at least saw the frustrating year finish on a high.

Throughout Pienaar's Ulster tenure, the season has so often ended with crushing defeat, but in many ways winning this dead-rubber brings its own bittersweet disappointment, again highlighting what might have been, had the side applied themselves in a similar fashion throughout the year.

It will not escape anyone's attention that turning the recent home draw with Cardiff into a win, holding on to beat Munster back in November, or even just netting two try bonuses against Treviso, would have had them preparing for a last four clash.

When all is said and done though, the silverware drought has now reached 11 years, with Wilson's departure meaning only three men - the trio of Tommy Bowe, Rory Best and Andrew Trimble - remain with any Ulster medals in their collection.

The loss of coaches Allen Clarke and Neil Doak, meanwhile, severs a further link to a more successful past.

With David Humphreys and Johnny Bell having left in recent seasons, Allen Clarke was a last reminder of the men who gave the Ulster supporters their most memorable of days - winning the European Cup at Lansdowne Road in 1999.

In his post-playing days, he was an assistant when the league was secured in 2006 and helped establish the Ulster Academy before, contrary to what was often reported, he was brought into the role of forwards coach by Kiss.

Doak too, with an association that runs all the way back to his debut in 1995, has stated that he saw Ulster not as a job but a way of life.

As pointed out by centre Luke Marshall post-match, it seems to have been largely forgotten in recent times that, when Ulster advanced to a Heineken Cup final in 2012, it was a side built around the attacking structures put in place by the former scrum-half and Ireland cricketer.

Yet, especially over the past months when it was known that they would be replaced by Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel, the treatment of men who have given so much of their adult lives to Ulster Rugby has often been less than edifying, and their departures should give those in charge, on the terraces and, indeed, the media some food for thought.

It was not that long ago that Mark McCall, the last man to bring any form of silverware back to BT6, made an exit from these parts that was hardly mourned at the time, and this weekend he is tipped to add a second Champions Cup to a Saracens' trophy cabinet he has left full to the point of overflowing.

The Bangor native is a cautionary tale of how quick we can be to write off coaches, especially indigenous ones, long before their career arc has come to its conclusion.

Often a change of scenery and change of voice is what's required for both coach and team - outside of the glory years of Toulouse and Guy Noves it is hard to find many examples in rugby of real longevity - but anyone with even a drop of Ulster blood coursing through their veins should wish both Clarke, at Ospreys, and Doak, at Queen's, well in what they do next.

There are plenty of players remaining at Kingspan who are quick to cite the influence they've had over their careers and, if Ulster do break through the glass ceiling and win some silverware in the seasons ahead, that contribution should not be forgotten.

For even in victory, and just like with Pienaar, Saturday was certainly no way to say goodbye.

Ulster: C Gilroy, A Trimble (capt), L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Piutau; P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Herring, R Ah You; K Treadwell, A O'Connor; R Diack, S Reidy, R Wilson. Replacements: J Andrew (for Herring, 75), K McCall (for Warwick, 66), R Lutton (for Ah You, 30), C Henry (for Wilson, 62), N Timoney (for Treadwell, 66), P Marshall (for Pienaar, 71), P Nelson (for Piutau, 58), J Stockdale (for Gilroy, 47)

Leinster: I Nacewa (capt); A Byrne, G Ringrose, N Reid, F McFadden; J Carberry, L McGrath; J McGrath, J Tracy, T Furlong; D Toner, H Triggs; R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Conan. Replacements: R Strauss (for Tracy, 56), C Healy (for McGrath, 56), A Porter, R Molony (for Triggs 56), D Leavy (for van der Flier, 56), J Gibson-Park (for L McGrath, 63), R Byrne, R O'Loughlin (for Reid, 72)

Referee: Andrew Brace

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