Friday 20 April 2018

Pienaar fallout shines a light on shortage of quality Irish scrum-halves

Ulster's Ruan Pienaar Picture: Sportsfile
Ulster's Ruan Pienaar Picture: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ulster's statement confirming Ruan Pienaar's exit arrived with a whiff of sulphur yesterday morning, stopping short of a declaration of war with the IRFU but making sure everyone knew who was to blame for the departure of the much-loved Springbok.

Once again, the controversial matter of the player succession has put Lansdowne Road and one of the provinces on a collision course. For years, fans of other sides have wondered if Ulster were playing by different rules, but now those questions cease.

The arrival of emergency signing Anton Peikrishvilli swells the number of non-Irish-qualified players on the books at Ravenhill to seven and the collection of imports is above the normal number permitted.

They were allowed to replace Johann Muller with another Springbok Franco van der Merwe, while Pienaar was permitted to remain when Toulon came calling two years ago, but those dispensations are at an end.

A world-class scrum-half, the Springbok has been the province's most important player since he joined in 2010; inspiring - along with Muller initially - a rise in standards that has seen them compete for trophies every season.

He is a popular figure on and off the pitch and even David Nucifora acknowledged his enormous contribution in his counter-statement. Yet, the Australian has no time for sentiment.

In the performance director's eyes, Ulster have had seven years to groom a successor to their marquee name, but 31-year-old Paul Marshall remains the back-up at the Kingspan Stadium.

Last capped in 2013, Marshall was called into Ireland's training squad last month, but is at best the fourth-choice. Beyond him at Ulster are Dubliners Dave Shanahan and Angus Lloyd, while 18-year-old Jonny Stewart is highly regarded but has some distance to travel.

The 32-year-old Pienaar wanted to finish his career in Ireland and many feel he has earned the right to do so. He has been working towards UK citizenship and has already signalled his intent to work as a coach at his adopted home.

Yet the wider issue at the heart of Nucifora's decision is that when Joe Schmidt looks around the provinces for back-up to Conor Murray, he doesn't have much to choose from. Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss have departed the scene, while Kieran Marmion is next in line but is still not fully trusted.

Leinster's Luke McGrath is probably third-choice, but he now has competition from overseas in the form of Jamison Gibson-Park and, while he may one day play for Ireland, it won't be until just before the 2019 World Cup.

Other than those three, contenders are thin on the ground and in Nucifora's eyes Pienaar's presence is stopping competition from emerging.

It is also a major reason why Ulster remain competitive however and the union can't lose sight of the need for the provinces to be viable entities in their own right.

Replacing Pienaar represents one of the biggest challenges the organisation has faced in recent years. Les Kiss and Bryn Cunningham must now scour the world for an Irish-qualified scrum-half in the hope of turning up a gem. A marquee name is off the agenda, while they are unlikely to convince Nucifora to allow them sign a project player.

The message to the provinces is that they can only get by with big-money signings for so long and groom replacements.

This season, the northern province look arguably the best-placed Irish side in Europe due to their superb backline, but Pienaar's looming exit places huge pressure on them to deliver.

Once again, the national cause is being put before provincial gains. Nucifora isn't there to be popular, but to ensure Schmidt has the best options to choose from.

Ulster will undoubtedly suffer - as will the struggling Pro12 which loses another big name to France - but the IRFU will insist that they should be able to compete without being reliant on imports.

Whether that is realistic in the modern market is questionable.

Irish Independent

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