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Pienaar: 'It's been tough year'

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'It brings life into perspective and what really is important' - Ruan Pienaar's silver lining after tragic start to 2019

As reunions come, Ruan Pienaar’s first match back in Belfast since his 2017 exit couldn’t be more perfectly timed. The South African spent seven heart-warming seasons in the bosom of Kingspan Stadium and he will surely be glad to meet old acquaintances again on February 22 at the end of what is set to be an emotionally difficult week for him.

The Saturday before his Ravenhill return will mark the first anniversary of the tragic death of his sister Rene at the age of just 38. She was killed in a four-vehicle accident on a road on South Africa’s Western Cape and the effect on the former Springbok had been profound. 

With his family – wife Monique and three children – living in Northern Ireland while he played last season for Top 14 side Montpellier in France, he was considering jacking in playing and joining them in Belfast. Then came word of the devastating incident in South Africa that changed his life in a way he never imagined. 

Within months he was back living in his native Bloemfontein, revisiting old haunts and lining out with Cheetahs, the PRO14 club he threw his lot in with on a two-year deal. It’s a silver lining to a tragic situation. “Definitely, it was very unexpected,” he said to RugbyPass, reflecting on the upheaval of his sister’s sad, sudden passing.

“It brings life into perspective and what really is important. It is important to have that in a rugby environment as well. Although it is our job and we want to do it as well as we possibly can, there are bigger things in life and behind the rugby player there is a person and they go through all the different challenges outside of rugby as well. 

(Continue reading below…)

The RugbyPass Nadolo documentary explores the life and career of Fijian rugby legend Nemani Nadolo and features Ruan Pienaar

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“Things like that [grief] bring life into perspective and it just brings you down to earth again. It has been a tough year from that point of view, but you are never too old to learn and to grow as a person,” he continued, adding how novel it is seeing his parents so frequently again after moving away from home way back in 2004 to join the Sharks in Durban and chase his dream of being a professional rugby player.  

“The tragedy with my sister passing away at the beginning of the year prompted the idea of going back and just supporting my mum and dad a little bit more, and the Cheetahs gave me the opportunity to go back there.

“It has been great. I have been out of the house for 15 years, so it is nice for them to have me back in town and spending some more time with them. I think they appreciate having us back there and them spending more time with my kids has been very good. 

“I’m back in the town that I grew up in. Most of the family is still there. It’s not the biggest place in the world. Not too much has changed, so it has been fairly easy. For us with the kids that was the biggest concern, for them to settle in and find the move not too hard. 

“Thankfully they have slotted in at school easy enough. They have enjoyed being back in South Africa, so I think as long as the family are happy and the kids are happy that makes your job a little bit easier,” he said, sizing up the differences between life in Bloemfontein and what the Pienaars had become very used to 6,000 miles away in Belfast.

“You can have a barbecue more often now, the weather is pretty good back home. And I can just spend time with friends and family around the pool and around the house, it has been nice to have family around. 

“My mum and dad enjoy that and my wife’s mum enjoys having the grandkids around and spending more time with them, so it has been very enjoyable. We still have a soft place for Belfast, a lot of good memories and we do miss it every now and then, but for now we are in South Africa and enjoying it. 

“I have still got a property in Belfast, a lot of friends there and we called that home for a long time. Yeah, I think eventually we might go back when the kids are older and spend some time there. I have a lot of great memories over there, I still love the place. We’ll see one day. 

“The people were great to me and the family. I really enjoyed the rugby in the club. Ulster is a fantastic team to play for. All the players andthe management around the club are really good people so that made it a lot easier to slot in there. When I first signed I didn’t think I would spend seven seasons there, but I did and loved every minute of it.

“It’s a beautiful country. Portstewart, Portrush, all those places you can visit which are only a short drive away. There was lots to do and it’s a great place to bring up a family. I just really enjoyed the experience… It will be good (next February). I’m looking forward to getting back to Belfast playing at the Kingspan again. It will be good fun.”

That fixture is eleven weeks away yet, but Cheetahs have already been busy this European winter polishing their credentials as a side to be reckoned with in this season’s PRO14. They have a savage home record in their high altitude Free State Stadium and just last Saturday they fixed one shackling issue – winning away for the first time since an early January success at South African rivals Southern Kings was followed by seven straight European tour defeats. 

That win at crisis club Ospreys surely bodes well heading in 2020 for the scrum-half who turns 36 next March. “I have enjoyed it and I just want to keep enjoying it,” he explained. “You still want to perform well but it is about enjoyment. Once you lose that it’s probably time to hang up the boots, but it has been great to slot into the Cheetahs environment. It is a young squad and it is a lot of fun to be around with. It keeps you young at heart as well. It has been very good. 

“We started off well and for us, it is about getting more consistency on the road and getting those results. We just need to continue building,” said the Super Rugby veteran, who added that South African teams playing in a league with four European countries is logical.  

“I guess it makes sense from a time zone point of view. Sometimes you travel quite long distances but the time zone makes it a lot easier than travelling for Super Rugby. 

All the guys that I have spoken with have enjoyed the challenge of playing against the northern hemisphere teams. We still need to learn a lot of things playing abroad but it has been enjoyable,” insisted Pienaar, whose previous trip to Wales prior to last weekend coincided with South Africa’s greatest rugby moment in twelve years, the World Cup final win over England. 

“We were over playing the Scarlets. It’s massive for South Africa. There is a lot of negativity around the country and a lot of people have lost hope so sport has got a way to unite people and bring hope. That is exactly what the guys have done and everyone is still celebrating and is very happy. It brings a different vibe to the country and it’s good to see.”

WATCH: RugbyPass Rugby Explorer takes a trek through South African rugby communities in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth 

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'It brings life into perspective and what really is important' - Ruan Pienaar's silver lining after tragic start to 2019