World Cup winner Ruan Pienaar will get to say his farewells in front of a full house at the Kingspan Stadium this evening when Ulster take on top dogs Leinster in a Guinness PRO12 dead rubber derby.
The large crowd will pay homage to a magnificently talented player and an absolute gentleman. The Springbok scrum-half, who arguably has been the most talented import into the Celtic League, has recovered from a back spasm suffered in the opening minutes of last week’s defeat to the Ospreys.
Due to the IRFU’s intransigence in not allowing Pienaar to stay in his adopted city, he will now say a sad goodbye to Belfast and the fans who have idolised him since he first pulled on an Ulster jersey back in 2008.
And he is glad he can play a part to repay the faithful for their support, particularly with former Ulster and South African skipper Johann Muller making a special trip back from Durban for the game.
“It’s been tough,” said Pienaar who has been linked with return to Belfast in a coaching capacity following his stint with French Top 14 side Montpellier. “It’s all hitting home now. A couple of months ago it still felt like it was in the distant future but now it’s here. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a difficult day. It’s been emotional already with my Dad over and Johann Muller surprising me yesterday.
“My Dad has taught me everything I know and he knows how much this club means to me. It would have been nice if my mum could have made it but she has work commitments so she’ll be over next week. It was a surprise with Johann coming, nobody knew. It’s really special because I haven’t seen him since he left here three years ago.” Pienaar picked out a few abiding memories of his eight years with the province.
“I think my debut, then the 2011/12 season really does stand out, making the Heineken Cup final against all the odds. The quarter-final and semi-final especially are two special memories, seeing all the people who drove down to see us. There’s so many, but those are two that stand out,” said Pienaar with a hint of a tear in his eye.
“My wife and myself drove up to Ravenhill for the first time and it looked a lot different back then. She asked what we had gotten ourselves into, and to be honest, I probably thought the same. But I can honestly say I’ll never regret coming here. It’s still very sad to say goodbye. I’d love to come back to Belfast. My kids, this is all they know, and for us, we’ve grown really fond of this as home. You never know, we’ll see what happens.
“I think you have to respect (the IRFU’s decision) even if you don’t agree with it. You’ve seen a couple of funny signings at other clubs which would contradict the reasons why I have to leave. But I have all the memories and good friends to hold on to and remember forever.”
Pienaar won’t be the only veteran making his exit at a packed Ravenhill. Roger Wilson will wrap up 16 years at professional rugby’s coalface.
The 35-year-old ‘one-cap-wonder’, a term that frustrates him to this day, is the oldest player on the Ulster roster and will be making his 221st and last appearance for his home club.
“I haven’t thought about it too much personally,” said Wilson whose Brazilian wife is expecting their second child in September. “In many ways it’s strange as it’s the first time in a while Ulster go into the last game with nothing to play for. It’s been different. The boys’ heads are down a bit. I think the key message is playing for individual pride more than anything.
Wilson remains frustrated with his brief Ireland innings, particularly as he knows he improved his game during a string at Northampton.
“It’s very difficult, you can’t read other people’s minds in what they are thinking. You are given the excuse that I was playing abroad, and it wasn’t easy to get back and available for certain camps. The coaches at Northampton were willing to release me, it was an hour’s flight away, so I think it was a poor excuse personally.”
Like Ulster, who will be without Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Jared Payne, Leinster have omitted some of their Lions stars. Leo Cullen makes 11 changes in all but the starting pack still includes other Ireland players Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan and James Tracy. With Sexton absent, Joey Carbery links up with Luke McGrath at half-back.
C Gilroy; A Trimble (capt), L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Piutau; P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Herring, R Ah You; K Treadwell, A O’Connor; R Diack, S Reidy, R Wilson.
J Andrew, K McCall, R Lutton, C Henry, N Timoney, P Marshall, P Nelson, J Stockdale.
I Nacewa; A Byrne, G Ringrose, N Reid, F McFadden; J Carberry, L McGrath; J McGrath, J Tracy, T Furlong; D Toner, H Triggs; R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Conan.
R Strauss, C Healy, A Porter, R Molony, Dan Leavy, J Gibson-Park, R Byrne, R O’Loughlin.
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