Wednesday 21 August 2019

Ruan Pienaar to hit ground running in French test

Ruan Pienaar
Ruan Pienaar
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruan Pienaar spent much of the World Cup as a peripheral figure in the South Africa squad. When first-choice scrum-half Fourie du Preez was made captain in the wake of the Japan defeat, the opportunities for Ulster's No9 dwindled and he spent much of the tournament as a spectator on the Springbok bench.

Now, he is back where he is central to everything his team does and Ulster will be quietly delighted that their talisman is so fresh after spending two months on international duty.

The 2007 World Cup winner is not used to a break from the treadmill of playing matches, so he'll be hungry to get stuck into the task against Oyonnax near the France-Switzerland border at lunchtime today.

It is the French team's debut and for all of their enthusiasm, they will lack European experience and that is what Pienaar brings in droves.

And new Ulster supremo Les Kiss will be hoping that his star man reaches his normal levels of influence as they look to kick off a difficult campaign with an away win.

"I don't think I really could afford to take a break now. I didn't play that much in the World Cup," Pienaar (pictured) explained.

"So it is now a matter of getting up to speed with the calls and drills, so I'm more than happy to come back into the system now and hopefully get a little break some other time during the season. Yes, it has been a busy couple of years, but as long as you are healthy and injury-free it's just good to play and be back here.

"From a personal point of view it's a strange preparation as you have usually more time to settle in before Europe starts. But it has come around very quickly, but nevertheless I'm excited to be back with Ulster and to see everyone again and train with them, and looking forward to a good season."

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It will be interesting to see how Oyonnax perform after losing their coach Olivier Azam on Thursday in shock circumstances.

For all the talk of a player revolt, it is understood that the dressing-room was left stunned by the news that the man in charge had been relieved of his commission after an admittedly difficult start to the season.

That detracts from the novelty value of the club's first appearance in the top level of European competition.

Long known as unruly outsiders in France, Oyonnax come from beyond the typical heartland of French rugby and have prided themselves on their ability to upset the big guns on home turf.

That turf has recently become artificial and Ulster have used their 3G surface at their Ravenhill base to try and get up to speed. They will hope to turn the quick top-speed of the pitch against the hosts.

"I'm looking forward to seeing what that is like," Pienaar said.

"They have a big pack, so we will be looking to get that tempo up and hopefully if we get some good clean ball and get the wingers into some space."

Kiss has had to do without big centre Stuart McCloskey, whose off-loading game has been crucial to their efforts so far this season, so he pairs Luke Marshall and Darren Cave in midfield, while Peter Nelson deputises at full-back with Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy on the wings.

Up front, they will hope that props Kyle McCall and Ricky Lutton can compete against the grizzled French front-row, while Rory Best, Dan Tuohy and Franco van der Merwe will expect the lineout ball to be clean and give the backs the chance to attack.

With Pienaar and Paddy Jackson's relationship well-established at this stage, they should be able to control the game as long as the pack can deliver them quick ball at ruck time, but their opponents do have talent behind the scrum themselves where former Leinster and London Irish centre Eamonn Sheridan will be keen to make his mark.

Ulster will hope to learn the lessons of last season when they exited at the pool stages and the presence of Saracens and Toulouse in their group this years means they need to take as much as possible from their meetings with Oyonnax, whose interest in the competition could wane if their league position remains perilous.

There is no doubt that they'll be up for this one, however, with the small town of just 23,000 people in the foothills of the Jura mountains braced to show itself off to the wider world.

The Stade Charles Mathon has been a graveyard for plenty of good French teams in recent years, but stepping on to the centre stage in Europe is a different challenge and Kiss will be keen for his players to start well and create doubt.

Having gotten over their poor away record in Newport last weekend, Ulster will hope to kick on. With Sarries coming to Belfast next weekend, they could do with some momentum.

Silencing the crowd with a good start and playing the game at pace to move the big pack around should be enough, but they won't have it all their own way.

Verdict: Ulster

OYONNAX - F Denos (capt); S Tian, V Martin, E Sheridan, F Vainikolo; R Lespinas, F Cibray; L Delboulbes, J Jenneker, M Clerc; G Robson, F Metz; V Ursache, O Missoup, V Maafu. Reps: J Maurouard, S Tonga'uiha, A Guillamon, L Power, P Gunther, P Wannenburg, P Weepu, N Robinson.

ULSTER - P Nelson; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best (capt), R Lutton; D Tuohy, F van der Merwe; R Diack, C Henry, N Williams. Reps: R Herring, C Black, W Herbst, L Stevenson, S Reidy, D Shanahan, I Humphreys, L Ludik.

Ref - L Pearce (England)

Oyonnax v Ulster, Live, Sky Sports 2, 1.00pm

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