Neil Francis: Getting rid of Ruan Pienaar a gamble that shouldn't have been taken
IRFU's wrong decision leaves Ulster depleted - and with impossible task of replacing their 'franchise' player
The regular season in the Guinness Pro12 ends this Saturday. A little more convention and order restored when compared to last season's irregular season. The best team in the championship are Leinster, but that guarantees nothing and we wait on their team announcement to see how seriously they take Saturday's fixture against Ulster.
The northern province can't qualify for the semi-finals but that doesn't mean they won't be up for it. They finish their season off on a depressingly familiar theme - they will be guaranteed a horror draw in the Heineken Cup next season.
There is a cutting finality about this time of year which must make all the participating teams ponder their existence somewhat. Aspirations for two-thirds of the teams are unfulfilled. Coaches get sacked, fringe players get cut, agents go to work, treasurers count the pennies and players call it a day. Time to reflect! There is never a huge amount of traffic out of this island but this season-ending sees a significant departure which warrants discussion.
Ruan Pienaar leaves Ulster on Saturday. Whether he plays or not is a moot point. This is noteworthy not because it sees the departure of a world-class player but because it marks the moment when 'the' franchise player leaves - not of his own volition either. It is a signal moment.
Ruan Pienaar is sui generis - one of a kind and of his time. Pienaar's choice to move to Belfast aged 26 when he was an established Springbok international and had the best years of his career ahead of him was unique.
In the greater scheme of things, this was so much more than a player deciding to move to Europe for "the challenge". I was not privy to any of the negotiations but my reading would be that Ulster had found the loss of David Humphreys too much to absorb and they cast the net wide for a world-class player who would do so much more than just ply his trade.
There are marquee players dotted all over Europe who come for big pay cheques. Pienaar's mandate was to carry the franchise and be its most influential player, to elevate the team and be its pathfinder.
International Rugby Newsletter
Tom Brady of the New England Patriots is a franchise player. New England have an extremely savvy coach and have some real quality on their roster but they would not have won one of their five Super Bowls if Brady had not carried them all the way there. An unmistakeable commodity - franchise player.
In the Premier League, Steven Gerrard more so than say Roy Keane; even though Manchester United would have been far more successful, you could take Keane out of the side and United, because of the depth of their quality, would still cope. But take Gerrard out …
Pienaar would have travelled to Belfast for many reasons but with altruism being at the forefront. Money, despite his undoubted bona fides and commitment, would have been a major factor too. 'Come and be our franchise player' - that has longer-term connotations written into the entreaty.
A career project and that comes with a price tag. If Pienaar was able to turn down £60,000 a month from Toulon three years ago, then I suspect he was being well looked after at the Kingspan. Excellence comes at a cost.
In his seven seasons in Belfast Pienaar rarely disappointed. When teams came to Ravenhill and Pienaar was on the Ulster XV and he was playing well then it was rare that they lost. Playing away from home - well, sin scéal eile. On the occasions that Ulster engineered a big away win, Pienaar was normally central to it.
Ulster, though, have been a pale shadow of themselves without him.
I always thought over the course of the years how the UK economy would have performed if the Brits hadn't got the North Sea oil. Ulster without their precious commodity are now about to find out how good they are. Ulster's standing and their station in Europe and in the Pro12 has been in the last seven years inflated because of Pienaar's brilliance and even just his presence. That summation might be seen as harsh - but it's true!
On the debit side Ulster won nothing in the seven seasons that Pienaar was there. That is not his fault. His exemplar personality and even-tempered performances got them into positions to win finals and semi-finals, Leinster being their bête noir on most of those occasions.
You felt their journey to the 2012 Heineken Cup final deserved more.
They were unfortunate to run into Joe Schmidt's powerhouse Leinster side who were purring at that stage.
One of Pienaar's great qualities is that he has tremendous battlefield emotional intelligence: calm and measured under pressure, with an ability to take pressure on his own shoulders. He was Ulster's pressure valve. The hope is that he has passed on some of these characteristics to those he played with. That was part of the plan.
I can't think of anyone who has benefited from his presence more than Paddy Jackson. Even Humphreys had a long probationary period in his early 20s before he bloomed into the player he became.
Jackson has matured wonderfully and would not have done so with such speed and surety without the calming influence beside him. The last couple of seasons it has been a luxury to have Pienaar serving him. Jackson is well capable of operating more than competently without him now.
This brings us to the kernel of the issue. I think the IRFU were wrong to see Pienaar off the premises. I suspect Ulster were receiving assistance with Pienaar's salary and money was never really the issue.
I think Jackson can do a decent job of leading the team but there is a huge void in the No 9 slot which doesn't look like it can be filled by Ulster at this moment in time.
Paul Marshall is a quality player, more than just reliable, but he has the same age profile as Pienaar, with a season, maybe two, left in him. Ulster have signed John Cooney, who was on the pitch in 2012 when Leinster beat Ulster in the Heineken final.
They also have David Shanahan, formerly of Belvedere College, who came through the Ulster Academy. Competent players, but the cupboard looks bare in the No 9 department. Why on earth would the IRFU want to coerce Pienaar into leaving just at this moment in time? A two-year contract would not have been a major ask.
There was recognition too in the IRFU's final deliberations that he was so much more than just a hired gun.
It is true that Ulster are buttressed by almost a dozen out-of-towners, and they really do need to sweat their academy system a little bit more. Johnny McPhillips will be a star in the near term but he is a 10. Jacob Stockdale will also progress but Ulster have plenty of back-three players in their roster.
It is way too late now as the deal with Montpellier is done to replace Nic White and Tomás O'Leary. The only other franchise player of world-class quality in the same position is Conor Murray, and he won't be going anywhere.
Ulster could have a bounce or fall off a cliff next season. It is always difficult to judge when a player of Pienaar's standing leaves - but why gamble?