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Ruan Pienaar: Why Ireland can recover from Japan shock and how strange it will be to face the Ulster team I still love so much

Back home: Former Ulster star in the colours of new team Toyota Cheetahs
Back home: Former Ulster star in the colours of new team Toyota Cheetahs
Former Ulster star with his family, including his sister (left) Rene O’Ehley, who died in a car crash, and his wife Monique
World Cup shocker: Ruan Pienaar watches on as South Africa team-mate Victor Matland knocks on during the Springboks surprise defeat by Japan in the 2015 World Cup
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

If one man can sympathise with what the Ireland players have been going through this past week after losing to Japan, it’s former Ulster hero Ruan Pienaar.

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Before the shock in Shizuoka there was the Brighton Miracle, with Pienaar starting at scrum-half for the Springboks in what, until Saturday, was the unrivalled high point in the history of Japanese rugby.

The two-time World Cup winners took the result even worse than Irish public, with coach Heyneke Meyer feeling the need to offer an apology to the nation in the heated aftermath.

“The week after our Japan loss was one of the toughest of my career and I’m sure all of the guys that were involved would say the same thing,” recalls Pienaar.

“You don’t expect to lose and it happens. It was tough. It’ll be the same in Ireland’s case this case.

“They’ll be disappointed. I don’t think anyone expected it and it’s nice for the host nation to get a result like that. Anything can happen now in that pool with Scotland still in the mix too. I’m sure they’ll bounce back and get to work again.

“Unless they are playing South Africa of course I support Ireland and want them to do well but the only good thing is it’s taken the sting a bit out of what happened to us four years ago.

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“That’s the only nice part.”

Despite their tournament being remembered for the defeat to the Brave Blossoms, it was not defined by it either. They still topped their pool, beat Wales in the quarters and came closer than anyone to derailing a historically good All Blacks team from winning two in a row.

Pienaar believes that Ireland can do the same.

“After that game we still got to the semi-finals, we almost beat New Zealand and managed to get a bronze medal in the end after beating Argentina.

“It’s all still to play for and I think Ireland will still be optimistic about getting certainly to the quarter-finals and maybe beyond too.”

Having not been an uninvolved observer of this competition since Jonny Wilkinson landed it for England in 2003, Pienaar, himself a winner in 2007, watched the shock unfold from his new home in Bloemfontein, only a night’s sleep on from leading out the Cheetahs in their PRO14 win over Glasgow.

This time last year it’s not where Pienaar saw himself for the 2019/20 season, and as recently as last summer he was pondering retirement, but the unspeakably tragic events of last February ultimately saw him seeking a move close to his family.

Pienaar’s sister Rene was just 38-years-old when she was killed in a car accident in the Western Cape, leaving behind her husband and two young children. It was the desire to be there for his family that saw Pienaar make the decision to move back to South Africa after almost a decade in Europe.

“It’s been good,” he says of life back home. “It’s been nice to spend more time with family and friends. I think mostly it’s nice to be back here with them, that’s the big reason for us coming back. It’s been enjoyable. It was tough to leave Belfast and we do still miss it.

“It was a tough decision but for the time being this is where we see ourselves for the next couple of years.

“With what happened earlier in the year, the passing of my sister, it was a huge factor in us coming back and I wanted to support my family, especially my mum and dad as much as I could. I think if you’d asked us a year ago, the plan would have been for us to stay in Belfast but I think things changed obviously. It’s good to be able to come back and offer that support.”

The opportunity to play for the Cheetahs and extend his career was an added bonus, and one that has started well. An experienced head in a young squad, it’s already brought him something that proved elusive in the northern hemisphere - silverware. Pienaar was front and centre as the side lifted the Currie Cup in August.

After a difficult time in France with Montpellier, where his wife and three children returned to Belfast halfway through the stay, Pienaar seems in a better position to really enjoy his rugby.

“My time in France was tough, not having my family around was tough on both me and my wife,” he says. “She had three kids on her own in Belfast and I was in Montpellier. It was frustrating, a difficult time.

“I was at the crossroads of retirement really. We weren’t sure if we were going to move back to South Africa or I was going to start life after rugby in Belfast. I didn’t want to move the family somewhere else again and disrupt them again even if it was only in England or somewhere. Then the Cheetahs thing came up and it was a nice opportunity to come to the city where I grew up and play for the team I supported as a boy and it gave me a chance to get back to my family and to keep doing what I love.

“It was a tough decision because we love Belfast and that was where we probably would have seen our future.

“But the more we thought about it, we wanted to give it a go, the kids are at an age where we could and if we waited a few more years it would have been really tough on them. At the end of the day we said we’d give it a go and see what happens.

“I probably took a few weeks more than the Cheetahs would have wanted (to decide) but I’ve enjoyed it.

“It’s a great group of players, it’s a young squad and it’s been a good environment. It’s been quite easy to slot in.

“At my age I don’t want to put too much pressure on my performances and worry about that too much. I want to enjoy it. I know the end is quite close. I still want to play well but I know I need to enjoy it and contribute where I can. It’s been a good start last weekend and hopefully we can keep it going now.”

That’s where things get tricky for Ulster fans. Since his IRFU-enforced exit some two and a half years extra, one of the province’s most beloved players remains a favourite who has been cheered on from afar but the Cheetahs next opponents...none other than Ulster in Bloemfontein on Saturday.

“I’ve already been speaking with a few of the boys and it’ll be nice to catch up with them at the weekend,” he says. “It’ll be strange playing against your friends and against a team you still love so much. Hopefully it’ll be enjoyable but definitely strange.”

For him and Ulster fans both.

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