So special to play against Lions - Ruan Pienaar
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CAPE TOWN - There have been other father and son Springbok combinations, but the story of the Pienaar’s against the Lions is gold. Gysie played in all four Tests in 1980, with the Springboks winning the first three. He was brilliant in the series and especially lethal on attack when the Boks beat the Lions 26-19 at his home ground, the Free State Stadium.
Gysie played all his provincial rugby for the then Free State. Ruan, who was schooled at Grey College in Bloemfontein, made his provincial and professional debut for the Sharks in Durban and it was there, in the first Test in 2009, where he produced an inspired goalkicking display and his best of the series as the Boks also scored 26 points in winning by five points.
The Boks had led 26-7 before a late rally from the Lions turned the final five minutes into a one-score battle.
Ruan’s goalkicking wouldn’t be as accurate in the second Test at Loftus Versfeld, missing with three goalkicks, but his long-time friend Morné Steyn would land the telling 54-metre penalty to secure the Boks a 28-25 last minute victory and also a Test series triumph.
The 2009 Lions, as was the case with the 1980 tourists, won the final Test when the Springboks had already secured the series.
‘Oom Gysie’, as Steyn always calls the older Pienaar, was the early inspiration for Steyn to want to be a Springbok. He and Ruan were mates from an early age and Steyn’s early recollection was visiting the Pienaar home and being awed by dad Gysie’s framed Springbok jerseys.
Gysie’s humility, modesty and work ethic were characteristics that struck Morné and the youngster wanted to be a Springbok in the Pienaar mould. He wanted to work hard, never be bigger than the game and he also one day wanted to be able to look at his own framed Springbok jersey.
Springbok flyhalf Morne Steyn kicked the series-deciding penalty for the Springboks against the British Lions in 2009.
Steyn, like Ruan, would get to emulate Gysie and today all three of them sit comfortably in Springbok folklore. Steyn’s heroics against the Lions at Loftus was a monumental individual moment, as was his 31 points in one Test against the All Blacks. Ruan played 88 Tests for the Boks, won a World Cup in 2007 and played in nearly every backline position. His father made the No 15 jersey his own in 13 successive Tests in 1980 and 1981, and Ruan would also on occasion wear the No 15 jersey, although most of his Test rugby was played at scrumhalf.
Ruan is in the final stretch of a professional rugby career that started in Durban, took him to Ulster in Northern Ireland, to Montpellier in France and finally back to his Bloemfontein roots.
The Pienaar rugby story is a rugby romance - a young boy from Bloemfontein, schooled at the country’s finest rugby nursery, genetically blessed with Springbok DNA and determined to succeed through hard work and not because of the family name.
Pienaar left the comforts of Bloemfontein to fashion his own career, discover his inner self and flourish as a man as much as a rugby player. He was immediately a success with the Sharks but his real love story is at Ulster where they will forever consider him one of their own, a favoured son and one who could easily have been born in Belfast.
Ruan played 141 times for Ulster before spending two seasons in France. He recently returned to Belfast to lead a young Cheetahs team in the Pro 14 and the irony wasn’t lost on him. The circle was complete.
The time with Ulster also gave Ruan an appreciation of what it means to the Irish players to be part of the British & Irish Lions. It is as big for those young men, in terms of ambition and dreams, to wear the Lions jersey against the Springboks in South Africa, as it is for South Africans to play the Lions.
"Every Springbok wants to play the Lions and not everyone does because they only visit every 12 years. The only occasion bigger than playing the Lions would be a World Cup," says Ruan. "I was very blessed to experience both."
The younger Pienaar’s match-day experience of playing the Lions is very different to his father Gysie’s because of the strong Lions travelling support in the modern age.
Peter de Villiers once called Ruan Pienaar the "Tiger Woods of rugby". Picture: Reuters
Back in 1980, the Springboks could still claim home ground advantage by way of the supporters. When Gysie dazzled from fullback against the Lions in Bloemfontein in front of 67 000 supporters, the majority in the crowd were South African.
In 2009, in Durban’s series opener, it was a sea of red that greeted Ruan and his Springbok teammates: "I’d never seen anything like it. I was playing at my home ground but it felt so different because of the incredible support of so many Lions fans in the crowd. I didn’t expect to see so many Lions fans. There were more red jerseys than Springbok jerseys in the stands. It was a surreal moment running out and seeing that. You are not just facing a tough Lions team but also their supporters. To conquer that combination felt special."
Pienaar, with intimate knowledge of the 2021 tourists, has much respect for the quality of squad to be led by New Zealander Warren Gatland.
The last time the Lions lost a series, it was against the Springboks in 2009. Subsequently tours have involved victory against the Wallabies in Australia and a drawn series against the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2017.
‘It is going to be a new experience for our Springbok players to face the Lions for the first time and to experience that crowd support the Lions get. It really has no comparison to any other kind of crowd experience. As a Springbok, you want to be a part of that experience and every player will know what a privilege it is to play in the 2021 series," says Ruan. "It is going to be a great series: the world champion Springboks against the best of England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland."
How incredible would it be if Ruan somehow finds his way into the Bok match day squad for one final salute?
Stranger things have happened.