Ruan Pienaar has been the focus of attention for the Belfast rugby media building up to his team’s PRO14 Rugby clash with Ulster on Saturday but although it will be an emotional homecoming for him the Toyota Cheetahs captain is determined to ruin the mood of his former supporters.
Pienaar, capped 88 times for the Springboks, played for Ulster from 2010 to 2017 before heading to French club Montpellier for two years. He never left Belfast because he wanted to but because the Ireland Rugby Football Union wanted home grown players to be promoted and he has admitted that his wife, who has stayed home in South Africa, has been very jealous of him being back in their former home city.
Pienaar has hinted before that he would like to return to Ulster in a coaching capacity one day and he didn’t rule out the possibility when asked the question this week.
“It brings a lot of memories and good feelings when you drive into Belfast and my wife is very jealous that I am back here,” said Pienaar.
“We will see what the future holds. I am coming to the end of my playing career and our time in the next few years is in South Africa, but we’ll see.”
Pienaar’s Cheetahs team kick off the local interest in the PRO14 when they face Ulster on Saturday night and the Isuzu Southern Kings follow up on Sunday evening when they visit Scarlets in Wales. Of the two teams, the Cheetahs have the most to play for as they are in a close battle for play-off qualification both with Saturday night’s opponents and with Glasgow Warriors.
The Kingspan Stadium game is a big one for the Cheetahs in the sense that they are still within six log points of second placed Ulster and can conceivably displace them if they win their remaining tour games and then have a good run of wins when they return to Bloemfontein. But given that it is the top three teams in the conference that advance to the knock-outs, of even great concern is the Warriors, who have made up ground on the third placed Cheetahs and are now just two points adrift.”
“Having spent seven years playing for Ulster it will be a strange feeling running out at the Kingspan Stadium wearing a different jersey but I am looking forward to it,” said Pienaar from Belfast.
“It’s been a while since I have played at the Kingspan, and I know how brilliant and supportive their supporters are, but it is obviously a very important game for us and we are desperate to get the result. We will obviously have to perform a lot better than in our last game, but training has gone well this week.”
The game Pienaar is referring to is the 36-12 defeat suffered in inclement conditions at the hands of Conference A front-runners Leinster in Dublin last week. The Cheetahs were outplayed in the first half but were much better later in the game and it is that last portion of the Leinster clash that Pienaar wants to use as motivation ahead of the battle with his old team.
“We had a really tough outing against Leinster in bad conditions. Some Leinster players told me afterwards they had never seen it so bad in the years that they have played there. I think in the first half we were our own worst enemies. Leinster played well and we had not possession or field position but we gave away too many penalties,” he said.
“But you have to take the positives from it and in the second half we were much better. I may be wrong but we only conceded one try and scored two (in the last 25 minutes), our discipline was a lot better and we we kept the ball a lot better and put them under pressure more. So yes, a tough game if you look at the scoreboard but the way we ended was encouraging and we’ll try take that into this game.”
The Kings were also outplayed last week, with Munster being the side that dished it out, and it was interesting to hear their coach Robbi Kempson talking afterwards of the need to possibly revise the approach. He said he felt that maybe the side was trying to be too expansive for this stage of their development, and said either the approach or the personnel would need to be adjusted.
But there wouldn’t have been time this week for too much to change and Kempson will be hoping his team can regain the intensity they played with when on their most recent visit to Wales they scored their first overseas win against the Ospreys.
The Kings have played the Scarlets four times and have yet to win but the game is being played during a Six Nations weekend, which means the Scarlets will be weakened, and the last time the sides met saw a close game in Port Elizabeth, the Scarlets eventually edging home 41-34 in October 2018.
SA TEAMS’ PRO14 RUGBY FIXTURES THIS WEEKEND
Ulster v Toyota Free State Cheetahs (Kingspan Stadium, Saturday 21.35, Supersport 1)
Scarlets v Isuzu Southern Kings (Parc y Scarlets, Sunday 19.35, Supersport 1)