Ruan Pienaar only heard about Alby Mathewson’s departure from Munster on Tuesday.
It goes without saying that it struck a chord.
Mathewson won over both hearts and minds in his 15 months at the province, but he is a 33-year-old former All Black who can never play for Ireland. So, the IRFU’s David Nucifora called time on his stay and decided that it was time to turn to some homegrown half-backs instead.
Pienaar himself has had that situation foisted upon him. He was with Ulster six years when informed that his seventh would be his last. The reasoning was identical — by union decree — but his was a test case for the policy and it caused uproar at the time.
“It’s a tough one. You can’t really say what you felt at the time, but you’ve got to respect the decision that David Nucifora made,” Pienaar said.
“I guess at the time it would have been nice to finish my career at Ulster, but in a few years’ time I’ll sit down and think about my career and everything that happened and you’ll think it wasn’t too bad.”
Pienaar was the poster boy for rugby imports. A world-class operator on the pitch, he immersed himself in the club and in the city. So did his family. The hope was that he would retire an Ulster player and maybe kick off his life after rugby in Belfast too. He was all-in.
So he can sense the frustration that Mathewson, another family man, might feel this week after playing his last game for Munster, against Racing 92 last Saturday. It is clearly an unusual situation — get offered a contract, play superbly, and then get asked to leave.
Pienaar knows the IRFU’s argument. He gets that it is a business decision, but there is a wish that the union here would adopt a more rounded view of the players who are being asked to uproot their lives, and those of their immediate family members, before they are cut adrift.
“As adults and parents you move on from it, but when you have a young family that is happy and in a school and that has made their friends, to tell them you have to leave is hard. It’s tough. We had to go through that. I had my family with me for one season in Montpellier and then they came back (to Belfast) for a second season because they didn’t enjoy it and my wife struggled.
“Going forward, it would be nice if they just think of the whole package. I know there are decisions to be made. Like you said, it is probably business decisions, but there is more than just the player. There is a person with a family that is happy and enjoying life and making a contribution. It’s tough if it is like that, but I guess you’ve got to respect that and move on.”
He has done that.
His time in Montpellier came to an end this summer with a year still to go on his contract. That was fine with him. He is diplomatic about his time in France, describing it as an “interesting experience”, but hopes of settling in Belfast at the second time of asking were changed for them again.
Pienaar’s sister Rene died in a car crash in South Africa in February, prompting a return to his native country where he is now enjoying another, unexpected chapter to his career with a Cheetahs side he supported as a boy.
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity they’ve given me,” he said.
The gra for Ulster is still there. Pienaar is still in contact with some of his old teammates, and he looks forward to playing in the Kingspan again in the new year having already faced his old club in Bloemfontein in early October.
His opposite number that day was John Cooney whose performances at scrum-half since his signing have done so much to temper the criticisms of Nucifora and the IRFU since Pienaar’s departure, and set the template for the policy of prioritising Irish talent over imported offerings.
“He’s been brilliant and has played really well,” said Pienaar. “Obviously, his goal-kicking is great and he has marshalled the team around really well. It’s good to see him slotting in and playing so well. Dave Shanahan has performed well in the chances he’s got as well.
“Obviously, I’ve still got a soft spot for Ulster and I want them to do well, except when we play against them. It’s been really good to see them going really well and have that squad to compete. I still follow them closely.”