Wednesday 13 December 2017

Comment - Ulster right to rage at Pienaar's needless exit

Marshall gives voice to province's disbelief at Nucifora's decision to cut Springbok loose

A tearful Ruan Pienaar alongside former Ulster captain Johann Muller after his farewell competitive appearance for Ulster at Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
A tearful Ruan Pienaar alongside former Ulster captain Johann Muller after his farewell competitive appearance for Ulster at Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

If anyone needed a reminder that professional rugby players are human too, Saturday evening served it up. A tale of three scrum-halves.

In the moments after Ruan Pienaar broke down during his live interview with BBC Northern Ireland, news broke that Ben Youngs had decided to withdraw from the Lions tour of New Zealand due to the serious illness of his sister-in-law. Meanwhile, in a dressing-room almost 400km south of Belfast, Conor Murray sat with relief and elation having returned from an injury that had him fearing the worst.

Watching the tears stream from the South African's eyes as he made his lap of honour, flanked by his wife Monique and children Jean-Luc and Lemay, you had to wonder how it had come to this.

The vast majority of the 18,000 capacity crowd stayed behind to say goodbye, but the Pienaars didn't want to leave. No one at Ulster wants them to leave. That decision was made elsewhere.

You wondered if David Nucifora was watching and what he made of it all. It was his call to block Ulster from issuing a fresh deal to the 33-year-old.

Since their initial statement in September, Ulster have kept their disappointment with the decision beneath the surface but Ireland centre Luke Marshall admitted that it remains raw within the squad.

The South African with son Jean Luc and daughter Lemay following the Guinness PRO12 match against Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
The South African with son Jean Luc and daughter Lemay following the Guinness PRO12 match against Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"As players we're annoyed," he said. "We don't understand the decision to be honest. I suppose we can't air our frustrations too much against our employers but I can totally understand the supporters' feelings.

"Our inconsistencies as a team, coupled with losing a big player. You see how loyal how those fans are, a dead-rubber game, and it's still a sell-out crowd. They're incredible.

Frustrated "Certainly for me that's one thing that's been difficult this season, seeing the supporters frustrated and knowing at times that we let them down. That's not the intention, we're going 100pc each week, but we're certainly determined to get some silverware for them to reward that loyalty.

"When we signed Ruan, where we were as a team... the team lifted. You look at how the young guys came on with him. It's hard to ignore Paddy Jackson, playing by (Pienaar's) side, is now a world class out-half. I'm not playing right beside him but he's had a massive impact on my career and various other guys who are coming through."

IRFU performance director Nucifora made the decision in a cold, calculated manner from his office in Ballsbridge. Pienaar, so the reasoning goes, is blocking the path of an Irish-qualified scrum-half, meaning Joe Schmidt has less depth than he'd like. During the Springbok's seven-year stay in Belfast, Ulster have failed to develop a suitable heir to the throne and they are too reliant on their overseas import of advancing age.

In Nucifora's mind, he had to go.

While there is logic in those reasons, they don't account for the human side of the game.

Pienaar is a key leader for Ulster. He provides an example for the young backs around him, has helped bring Jackson through to become a Test out-half and he remains, alongside Murray, the best No 9 in the land.

The union need their provinces competing at the highest level and, while Pienaar's replacement John Cooney is undoubtedly a good player with the potential to deliver on his arrival from Connacht - the Dubliner is now saddled with the burden of replacing the most popular man at the Kingspan Stadium.

Given Pienaar's age and increased injury profile, there could have been scope to ease the transition but the decision was taken and the legendary No 9 moves on. Some will have little sympathy for a player who has been a top earner in Irish rugby and will now move to Montpellier, not the worst spot, to continue earning a good salary.

But his years of service should have earned the right to choose his own destiny.

Up against him on Saturday was Isa Nacewa who was allowed prolong his stay with Leinster beyond the end of next season.

Undoubtedly, the Aucklander contributes to the Leinster cause on and off the pitch just as Pienaar did, but he also can't play for his country and is older than the South African.

Ulster fans will point to inconsistencies but their complaints will likely fall on deaf ears.

Nucifora was brought in to break eggs with the singular goal of improving the national team and he's not one to let the ire of a province bother him.

"I didn't think there was that much criticism," he shrugged when asked about Pienaar in October.

"Look, I think it was a fairly clear-cut situation, to be honest. Ruan has been a great servant for Ulster Rugby over seven years.

"Did we think it would be wise for him to stay nine years? No. I mean, that doesn't fit in with any of our plans."

Contextually, it is all dwarfed by the Youngs news. A contract or summer tour has nothing on the life-or-death issues the England scrum-half faced and he can't have taken his decision to withdraw from the Lions lightly.

And, in the cold world of professional sport, his announcement nudges Murray closer to a Test jersey.

It's not the way he would have wanted it, but the Munster No 9 will just be delighted to be back on the field playing and showing signs that his long, injury-enforced absence is over.

In Belfast, Pienaar wiped away the tears and waved goodbye to the place he's come to call home.

The door will remain open to him in future, but he should never have been shown it in the first place.

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