IT wasn’t too long ago that Ruan Pienaar was a forgotten man. He’d packed his bags, having opted to continue his career in Ulster in Ireland and some thought his days as a Springbok were well and truly over.
And why shouldn’t they have thought so. Francois Hougaard was deemed to be next in line for the Bok No9 jersey, having played behind Fourie du Preez for a number of seasons and he’d made a big impact for the Boks from the bench in 2010 and last year.
Fast forward to now and all of a sudden Hougaard, once considered one of the Boks’ most exciting prospects at nine, is playing on the wing and Pienaar is the first choice scrumhalf, and that’s not going to change any time soon.
Actually, it seems Bok boss Heyneke Meyer may just be thinking Pienaar is his man for the World Cup in the UK in 2015. The former Sharks man has all the experience and by the time the next tournament comes around he’d have had a good few seasons playing in the wet northern hemisphere conditions, making him the ideal candidate for the scrumhalf role.
Pienaar, though, doesn’t want to think that far ahead, even though he knows if he continues to produce the kind of rugby he’s played for the Boks this season it may be difficult for Meyer to consider anyone else.
“The coach hasn’t said anything to me about the World Cup and his plans, but sure, I get a sense there’s a possibility I might be the guy who could play there when the tournament comes around,” said Pienaar this week.
“I think, crucially, at least I know the coach backs me.”
Indeed. Meyer does back the 28-year-old, something previous Bok coaches have not always done … or been allowed to do.
When Pienaar made his debut in 2006, Du Preez was the first choice man and in top form and then coach Jake White didn’t have much option but select the Bulls man.
And standing behind Du Preez in the queue was Ricky Januarie who, depending on who you talk to, was a better or worse option than Pienaar. Bolla Conradie was also in the frame.
Du Preez was also Peter de Villiers’ first-choice man … one of the reasons why the son of Gysie Pienaar has only made 26 starts for the Boks in 61 Tests.
With 35 appearances as a replacement he is challenging Bok teammate CJ van der Linde and Ollie le Roux as the Bok with most appearances off the bench.
His start on Saturday against Scotland in Edinburgh will be his sixth in a row, the most consecutive games in succession for the Boks by some margin.
“I don’t regret what’s happened to me in the past (playing off the bench) … I’ve enjoyed every moment with the Boks over the years. But, saying that, there were times in the past that I felt I was playing well enough to warrant a starting place but Fourie and Ricky were there and they played great rugby for the Boks,” he says.
“I know it was difficult for the coaches, there were basically three of us and Fourie and Ricky were ahead of me, the coaches at the time believed in those guys and that’s fine. Selection is never an easy thing.”
Pienaar, playing for the Sharks and used as a scrumhalf, flyhalf and fullback, simply had to bide his time. When he did get the nod at a higher level it was never in one position and it never lasted more than a few games. He admits he went through tough times.
“I had to stay patient and wait for my chance but it was generally for one or two games when someone else was injured and then I’d be out again. Admittedly I also didn’t always use my chances properly when they did come around.”
It didn’t help that he was seen as a jack-of-all-trades.
“At the Sharks and at the Boks I was used in so many different positions so I ended up sitting on the bench for many Tests because I covered for three positions. It was easy for the coaches to select me in that role and I was happy with it at the time. When you’re young you’ll do anything to be part of the Boks. But there came a stage that I realised I needed to settle.”
Sadly for South African rugby Pienaar felt it necessary to leave for Northern Ireland to find peace in one position. At Ulster he’s been able to play solely at scrumhalf and is now considered one of the finest No9s playing the game in Europe.
“It’s not the main reason I came to Ireland,” he says. “I also felt I needed something different, something fresh. Bar the few occasions when all our flyhalves have been injured and I’ve been asked to fill in at 10, all my games are at nine. It’s helped me a lot and my game has improved.
“I think I’ve become more confident in my game here and the conditions mean you’re always being tested and challenged. My handling improved because the ball is sometimes very wet and slippery and then because of the rain and wind, my game management has also got better. I think I probably see more on the field now and read the game better.”
Pienaar has become something of a key man in Meyer’s team and still the right side of 30 he could very easily play at nine for a good few more years for the Boks.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do when my contract with Ulster ends in 2014 but the fact I’m being picked now as an ‘outsider’ obviously shows me the coach backs me, which is encouraging.
“It’s the same for the other guys who play here, Gurthro Steenkamp, Francois Louw and few others. When you don’t play in South Africa you know you’re limiting your chances of playing for the Boks, but when we do get selected, like now, then at least you feel you’re not being ignored and it gives one more motivation to really play well.”
Pienaar knows he’s going to be pushed all the way for the No9 jersey until the next World Cup. Hougaard is still in the frame and then, of course, there are other No9s in South Africa hoping to make a big impression in the next year or two … Sarel Pretorius, Piet van Zyl, Charl McLeod, Cobus Reinach, Louis Schreuder.
“There are a lot of quality No9s coming through all of a sudden, but that’s healthy and it’ll keep me on my toes.” – The Star