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Ulster's joy as Ruan Pienaar stays

By Niall Crozier

It's not often that renowned French daily, L'équipe – one of most respected sports newspapers in the world – gets it wrong.

But on September 19 it announced that Ruan Pienaar, the South African scrum-half whose Ulster contract was to have been up at the end of this season, had signed a two-year deal with Toulon and would be on his way to the free-spending Heineken Cup holders next summer.

Pienaar à Toulon! their back page headline read. They were wrong.

That they were is understandable. From whatever angle one viewed it, a move to last season's winners of European club rugby's biggest prize, made sense. No-one can match the wages they are offering; five of European rugby's top 10 earners play for this club.

Having scooped the big prize last term, they have added significantly to that squad. In particular, they have added South Africans – fellow-countrymen of the Ulster scrum-half, so they speak his language, both literally and figuratively.

With a playing budget of €24 million (£20m) last season, it is widely accepted that President Mourad Boudjellal's bank-rolling of Toulon means they can have pretty much any player they choose.

So why didn't they get Ruan Pienaar? Well, crucially because 'pretty much' is not the same as 'any' or 'every' and certainly Pienaar is one such exception.

There is little doubt that by opting to stay with Ulster he has forfeited far better wages than they or any Irish province could ever hope to match. His contract with Toulon would have landed him something like £50,000 a month. But Pienaar is a man not motivated solely by money. There is more to him.

He has made no secret of the fact that he enjoys life here. He and wife Monique and their 18-month old baby daughter, Lemay, are well settled. He likes the pace, he likes the people.

Earlier this year, he said: "The pressure rugby players get in South Africa isn't as intense over here; the fans make it clear that they back you whether you win or lose. That kind of support helps a lot."

Something else which may have gone against Toulon is that they supposedly saw him as a replacement number 10 for Jonny Wilkinson, who is expected to retire at the end of this season. If true, that certainly will not have helped them in their bid to woo him.

First and foremost, he sees himself as a number nine and, much to his satisfaction, that is how Ulster see him, too.

Last season, when Paddy Jackson was struggling, it was suggested by some that Ulster could field Paul Marshall at scrum-half with Pienaar as his stand-off. Coach Mark Anscombe's response to that idea was: "When you have one of the best – if not the best – nines in the world, why would you play him anywhere else?"

Music to Pienaar's ears.

Ahead of last season's PRO12 final, the player reiterated: "It's my preferred position and allows me to work on my strengths. I believe I contribute more in the number nine jersey. Ulster have needed me at fly-half sometimes this season. I don't mind helping out, but I like the fact that they see me as their first-choice scrum-half."

His Christian faith is of central importance to him, too, and his involvement in outreach work is well-known. Those who know him best always maintained his beliefs would play the biggest part in any decision made.

And when it appeared that he was on his way to Toulon, one Ulster supporter's Facebook message read: "If you have heard Ruan's story then you will know he will be lead by God and nobody else."

Pienaar's decision to remain with Ulster may cost him more than mere money. It may well impair his chances of making South Africa's team for the next World Cup. And, in that he will be 33 when his contract expires, staying here could impact on another long-held ambition, too.

In May he said: "I've always said that I want to end my career at the Sharks. When that happens, I can't say now.

"I'll make that decision with my family closer to the time. One of my biggest goals is to make the Springbok squad for the 2015 World Cup. I might have to move back to South Africa to earn a spot in the team."

It says a great deal for his commitment to Ulster and the value he places on what they are trying to do that he is willing to risk missing out on one or both of those dreams.

The news that he has signed up for another three years with Ulster could not have been better timed. What a boost for the Ulster team and their supporters going into Friday night's Heineken Cup curtain-up against Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill. And what a feather in the cap of Director of Rugby, David Humphreys, who got the most important cog in the Ulster machine to sign that new deal.

Last night he said: "We're just delighted that Ruan has decided his future lies in Belfast." Admitting that there will always be others able to offer more money, Humphreys revealed his ace card at negotiation time by saying: "What you've got to offer is an opportunity to maximise your career and maximise the potential that every player has.

"I think slowly but surely over the last few years we've managed to do that."

Magic moments from Pienaar in the Ulster shirt

October 1, 2010: Ulster 19 Glasgow Warriors 17 (Magners League, Ravenhill)

A night to remember for Ruan Pienaar and Ulster. On his debut he gave the Ravenhill faithful a taste of things to come by scoring all of his side's points – a converted try and four penalties – in the victory over Glasgow. It was the start of something special, with all who saw it realising that Ulster had signed a star.

February 18, 2011: Scarlets 16 Ulster 18 (Magners League, Parc y Scarlets)

Another of those remarkable one-man shows which ended on the highest of high notes. With Ulster needing to win to maintain their hopes of inclusion in the Magners League play-offs, Pienaar – who had already nailed five penalties – added a sixth from 50 metres to snatch victory at the death.

March 18, 2011: Ulster 25 NG Dragons 23 (Magners League, Ravenhill)

An action-packed thriller of a match, won by Ulster who went fourth in the table as a result. With a 79th minute Jason Tovey drop-goal seemingly having given the guests victory by a point, Pienaar broke the hearts of Welsh opponents for the second time in a month by replying in kind with the last kick.

January 14, 2012: Ulster 41 Leicester Tigers 17 (Heineken Cup, Ravenhill)

Another master-class display by the Ulster scrum-half who kicked 21 points in his side's 41-7 rout of Leicester Tigers, a performance that took Brian McLaughlin's side to the brink of Heineken Cup quarter-final qualification for the second year in a row. on the night he was in a class of his own.

January 20, 2013: Castres Olympique 8 Ulster 9 (Heineken Cup, Stade Pierre Antoine)

Not the greatest exhibition of rugby ever seen, but an historic day for Ulster in that it marked their first-ever competitive fixture on French soil. Trailing 8-6 at the half-way stage, Mark Anscombe's side's points having come from two Pienaar penalties, they needed someone to do something. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Third penalty, job very well done.

He's a class act: Ruan Pienaar doing what he does best for Ulster

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