Ulster rugby fans are in a daze. Their state of discomfiture has been caused by the shock announcement that star scrum-half Ruan Pienaar is departing Belfast’s shores at the end of the current season-2016/17. The unexpected announcement came yesterday and follows seemingly intensive negotiations between the player, his employers in Ulster Rugby and the governing body charged with the administration of the sport in Ireland: the IRFU. In a brief statement yesterday, Ulster Rugby confirmed that their best player will leave at the end of the season and the wording left no doubt that this devastating decision was the IRFU’s call. The union’s rationale centres around their so-called “succession” policy, that is the IRFU’s insistence that only one non-Irish qualified player is permitted across the four provinces in each position. Given the dearth of indigenous scrum-halves following last season’s retirement of Eoin Reddan, Pienaar’s position at Ulster has become increasingly untenable, it seems. The news prompted predictable bile on the internet and social media from the fair-weather keyboard fans, who haven’t the first clue about Irish rugby structures or Ulster’s role within the national system. A lot of these guys are new to the sport and their knowledge of Irish rugby could be written on the back of a postage stamp, leaving plenty of room to spare.
The IRFU has been cast as the villain of the piece, the big bad wolves who have come to take our beloved Ruan away. Is this an accurate depiction of events? Is it fair, even? I don’t think so. Leaving emotion and sentiment aside for a moment, let’s look at the facts. Pienaar has been with Ulster for six years and counting. It’s extremely rare-unprecedented even-for a foreign player to survive so long within the Irish system. It just doesn’t happen. The only comparable figure in terms of longevity is Leinster’s Isa Nacewa and he’s currently enjoying his second stint at his province, having returned from retirement in New Zealand. In reality, Ulster have done extremely well out of their superstar scrum-half and have undoubtedly seen the best of him since his arrival in 2010. The South African international was an instrumental figure in Ulster’s march to the Heineken Cup final in 2012 and Pienaar was one of the key men in making the red hand province the perennial contenders they are today. That the province has come up short of silverware can hardly be laid at Pienaar’s door. Think where the Ravenhill men would have been without him these past few seasons. In truth, Ulster are fortunate to have had Pienaar for so long. Remember, he was nearly gone two years’ ago when French giants Toulon came calling. Only the adroit negotiation of David Humphreys kept Ulster’s star man at Ravenhill in one of his final acts as Operations Director.
Ireland’s scrum-half shortage isn’t a myth. Following Reddan’s retirement, international class nines in Ireland consist of Conor Murray and Kieran Marmion. That’s it. And Marmion is a comparative rookie in Test terms. One of the main arguments in favour of keeping Pienaar in situ at the Kingspan was his pivotal role in nurturing, developing and mentoring young Ulster scrum-halves. Bringing native talent on. Except it hasn’t really worked out like that. Ruan’s deputy is still veteran Paul Marshall, while the promising David Shanahan is untested at the highest level. Pienaar has been the integral figure in the development of Ulster’s half-back play. There’s no doubt that the Springbok superstar has taken his side’s back line to new levels. But if Pienaar’s continued presence, six years into an already extended stay, is now impeding the development of indigenous Irish talent, then surely the time is right for a parting of the ways? This certainly seems to be David Nucifora’s train of thought. The Irish provinces exist to serve the national team, not the other way round. Some of our new fans might not like that fact, but that’s how it is. Like it or lump it.
While the fans’ disappointment is understandable, there’s been an unduly emotional and sentimental angle to this story that’s not helpful. Since yesterday, I’ve read several people complaining how it’s unfair that Pienaar is being uprooted from Ulster against his will. How exactly? Well, it’s claimed that Pienaar’s family is well settled in Belfast and apparently they have a strong association with a local church. While that’s terrific to see, it seems preposterously idealistic to expect the IRFU to take such factors into account while negotiating a professional contract. Ruan Pienaar is a professional rugby player and a very well remunerated one at that. He knows the drill. Professional rugby is an unsentimental business and it’s naive to think of such dealings in terms of fidelity. This is business. Emotion doesn’t come into it. At the end of the day, it’s a reciprocal relationship. Ruan Pienaar has been brilliant for Ulster Rugby and Ulster has been good to Pienaar, but all good things come to an end eventually.
That said, I’m sorry to see him go. Ruan is undoubtedly the greatest Ulster player I’ve seen, bar none. He is indisputably world class. When it comes to quality, I didn’t think David Humphreys would be surpassed, but Pienaar is a cut above the rest. The very personification of class. More than that, he’s a good bloke. Everyone in Irish rugby will wish him well and we’ll be delighted if he comes back in a coaching or off-field capacity some day. It’s sad indeed to see Ruan go, but even the greats must depart the scene some time. Irish rugby doesn’t owe anyone a living, however, and although the IRFU will be criticised over this, they’re right to put succession above short term expediency. At the end of the day, Irish interests will always come before any non-qualified player, no matter who they are. Thanks for everything, Ruan. You’ve been the man. Now the time’s come for your adopted province to prosper without your expert guidance.