Pienaar proves game-changer at scrumhalf
Restoring Springbok to his favoured position was key, writes Jim Glennon
Ulster travelled to France chasing their first ever victory there in the 17-year history of the European Cup, without six marquee players. Castres, currently fourth in the French Top 14, had only been beaten once at home this season, by Toulouse, in keeping with a fearsome record at Stade Pierre Antoine.
That was the backdrop to this historic Ulster victory – on their 15th Heineken Cup game on French soil. Skipper Johann Muller in particular has been missed, the recent slippage in performance levels coinciding with his injury-enforced withdrawal from a rampant performance at Northampton in December.
Considering this, the decision of coach Mark Anscombe and director of rugby David Humphreys to move scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar to outhalf – to the exclusion of regular pivot Paddy Jackson – was something of a surprise, notwithstanding the Springbok's capacity to play there.
Pienaar, in recent weeks particularly, has been outstanding at the base of the scrum and his halfback partnership with the emerging Jackson has provided the very fulcrum on which the team's game plan is based.
Despite starting with the advantage of a strong wind at their backs, it was evident from an early stage that a victory would be something of an achievement.
The absence of their big players, of physicality and reputation, was sorely felt against a home side who attempted to exploit their absence with a highly physical approach of their own.
As a consequence, Ulster failed to impose any pattern on the game and they weren't helped either by an uncharacteristically weak performance by Pienaar; basic handling errors, and a trio of poor decisions to spurn wind-assisted penalty opportunities denied his colleagues much-needed opportunities to create any kind of rhythm either on the pitch or on the scoreboard.
To add to their woes, the lineout – in the absence of the regular second-row partnership of Muller and Dan Tuohy – malfunctioned badly and was unreliable as a source of possession. The scrum was the only area in which progress was being made, with props Tom Court and John Afoa never less than comfortable.
Court continued his rich vein of form of recent weeks and World Cup medallist Afoa simply annihilated his highly rated, until now at least, opponent Yannick Forestier – who was the loosehead in the impressive French pack for the recent autumn international series.
Indeed, so pronounced was Afoa's superiority that his much-vaunted opponent suffered the ignominy of being substituted after 45 minutes, ostensibly to prevent the concession of a yellow card.
It was an Ulster substitution, however, which proved to be the game's turning point. On 55 minutes, and with the home team leading 8-6, Ulster's management introduced Jackson to his usual position of outhalf and restored Pienaar to the base of the scrum.
The benefits were obvious with a relative fluency immediately evident in everything Ulster did, and the back-row of Chris Henry, Robbie Diack and substitute Iain Henderson revelling in the familiarity of the restored partnership.
Henderson, who replaced the injured Roger Wilson after 27 minutes, underlined his potential yet again with an impressive contribution but it was acting captain Henry on the openside flank who really caught the eye.
The Malone clubman's performances this season have been a revelation and it will take a brave selection decision from Declan Kidney to hand the No 7 green jersey – in which Henry performed well in the autumn – to someone else.
A combination of Ulster's substitution and fatigue on the part of the French as they struggled to cling on to their slim lead was always likely to lead to opportunity for Henry and his colleagues – and it duly arrived in the 75th minute in the form of a penalty-kick at goal which Pienaar duly converted to take a single-point lead and claim that elusive first victory in France.
There's also an outside chance, subject to the permutations and combinations arising from the weekend's other games, of that all-important quarter-final at Ravenhill. It will be a fervent wish of all Ulster fans that when that tie does come around, the injury list will have been whittled down to manageable proportions and that's not an unreasonable expectation.
Muller, Tuohy and Jared Payne are expected back in the next few weeks and will be welcomed with open arms as the squad seeks to rediscover the momentum of the first half of the season. All of that, and more, will be essential if a semi-final place is to be achieved.
Sunday Indo Sport