Off With You!

A new season is here.  Hello everyone!  Let’s all start with an essay entitled ‘What we did on our Holidays’.

While a look at the upcoming season (Which non-scoring wings will Leinster start this year?  Who are the latest pairing to be tried in the centres for Munster? Is Robbie Diack still on the bench? Can Connacht do it again?) is in order, the first dramatic talking point looks to be the non-renewal of Ruan Pienaar’s contract.  It’s a staggering bit of decision-making from the IRFU and to these eyes, totally wrongheaded.

It’s borne of the directives on recruitment of foreign players, rolled out to great fanfare (and bemusement) back in 2013, and which have been selectively enforced ever since. The non-scoring Zane Kirchner has (mystifyingly) been allowed to keep Irish non-scoring wings kicking their heels while doing very little to justify paying him, and we lost count of the number of extensions BJ Botha managed to winkle out. Yet the IRFU say they cannot give Pienaar another contract because Ulster now have to fill the 9 shirt with an Irishman.

It looks a wrong decision on so  many levels.  For a start, simply vacating the number 9 shirt is not going to elevate the indigenous scrum halves at Ulster to a higher level.  The player who is next in line at the province is Paul Marshall, who is clearly not in the picture for test recognition, ranking number 5 in the depth chart on his best days, and mostly lower.  He’s a decent Pro12 player, but that’s just not good enough for Ireland, and never will be, no matter how much gametime he gets. After that, its Dave Shanahan and Angus Lloyd – now it’s possible that one of this pair will improve to such an extent that will be better than (a then 35 year old) Pienaar in three years, but it’s far less likely if Pienaar is half heartedly flinging passes to a deep-lying Lionel Beauxis to welt into orbit than working with them every day.

Furthermore, it’s easy to argue that Pienaar’s presence has benefitted Irish rugby, and would continue to do so, through his stewarding of Paddy Jackson.  On this year’s summer tour, much was made of Jackson’s emergence as a player of test quality, finally giving us a reliable replacement for Jonny Sexton.  But how much does Jackson’s development owe to playing alongside so assured and consummate a performer as Ruan Pienaar? Put it this way, would Jackson be at his current performance level if Pienaar left for Toulon two years ago when offered a blank cheque? Jackson has now reached maturity, and no longer requires a scrum half to take pressure off him, as might have been the case in the past, and any 10 will tell you that the better the passes they receive from the 9, the better they are likely to play.

A look at the bigger picture also reveals the rules that have dictated Pienaar must leave to be somewhat anachronistic – and have only been half applied in the past anyway.  They were devised when Ireland had three strong provinces and one extra; Connacht were exempt.  The idea was that across the three provinces we would have two Irish players playing regularly in each position.  But with Connacht no longer an add-on and now winning trophies and contributing players to the national team, the rules don’t really make sense any more, at least in their old form.  I make it that there are three scrum halves vying for the vacant spot as Conor Murray’s deputy for Ireland; Luke McGrath, John Cooney and Kieran Marmion.  Two of those are playing with Connacht, the other with Leinster.  It’s hard to see what Ruan Pienaar’s presence at Ulster can possibly be doing to hamper their development.

But worst of all, it just feels like shabby treatment of a great player and person.  There does not appear to be any consideration for the fact that, after seven years, Pienaar and his family have laid down roots here, and wanted to stay (was willing to for less than he could have earned on the open market) and ultimately move into coaching.  It feels like he’s been treated as a commodity, a tick in the box marked ‘non-indigenous player’ and nothing more.  When those Top 5 Foreign Imports lists are drawn up in future years you can guarantee that Pienaar’s name will be up there with the Doug Howletts and Felipe Contepomis.  He has been world class for Ulster, a lynchpin.  He deserves better treatment than this, and it’s a decision that is unlikely to benefit Irish rugby either.

Gerry thinks it’s down to the presence of Jamison Gibson-Park in D4, and it’s probably a factor. But, as hass been said, if the IRFU are prioritising an opportunistic free agent as a potential Irish cap in 3 years over a man and a player like Ruan Pienaar, it’s a great shame, and doesn’t say much for them.

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39 Comments

  1. Says it all. Kirchner has done s.f.a and there actually are young wings / 15s at leinster who would benefit from him leaving. Ditto Isa Nacewa yet it’s Pienaar who gets the heave ho.

    • curates_egg

       /  September 8, 2016

      “Ditto Isa Nacewa” – are you a total WUM or just a troll?

  2. Christiaan Theron

     /  September 2, 2016

    It was a lost opportunity. While Jackson can thank Ruann for all the knowledge imparted. Questions should be asked of the management as to why there was no player succession planning? Especially as Connacht have 2 scrum halves on the list for possible internationals. Does this mean that Cooney will go North because if Ulster management best solution is more of the same “good old Boy” management style in the shape of Paul Marshall then that sort of amateurism belongs in a different age.

  3. ORiordan

     /  September 2, 2016

    Welcome back!

    This seems to be a “I’m the fecking boss” decision from Nucifora.

    Looking at this from his point of view, Ulster has singularly failed to come up with a succession plan for Pienaar in 7 years so would have been in even more trouble if Ruan slipped the wrong way and had a career ending injury on a wet Friday night against the Scarlets or whoever.

    Now Ulster could come up with a series of excuses like, oh well, Paul Marshall hasn’t quite come on the way we hoped after 10 years and we tried, errr… Ian Porter, Blane McIlroy and Michael Heaney and Ian Porter again after we released him and he went to Connacht and Michael Heaney again after we released him and he went to Doncaster.. and err.. maybe Dave Shanahan is a prospect…

    So at one level maybe Nucifora is saying to Ulster, screw the excuses, a failure is a failure and you shouldn’t be rewarded for failing to come up with any succession by prolonging Pienaar’s contract.

    However on a personal level, I agree that it does leave a bad taste in terms of Pienaar the man, disenchanting the fan base against the D4 overlords and the perception that someone, anyone with an Irish granny from Birmingham, Ballarat, Bloemfontein or Lower Hutt is more important as long as they have been passed over playing for their country of birth.

    • Christiaan Theron

       /  September 2, 2016

      If the Nucifora approach is true then he is dishing out a hard lesson in professionalism in rugby. Is the Ulster management really listening. If their track record is anything to go by it is unlikely they will understand what should change. A more interesting question for the fans would they swap the talent and budget of paying Paul Marshall, Bryn Cunningham and Shane Logan to keep Ruann?

      • ORiordan

         /  September 2, 2016

        I’m not sure if it is a purely financial decision though as Ulster are pretty flush.

        • Christiaan Theron

           /  September 2, 2016

          The point is Ruann has been a model professional. Whereas the management of his succession by “the good old Boys” is nothing less than amateurism.

    • Without getting all Donald Trump, one can get uncomfortable at the recent number of new caps for project players and Granny ones. Its an unintended consequence of the NIQ rules, and its getting pretty uncomfortable when you get lads coming over for money and caps, getting gametime over lads the system has produced from youth. And one can even point the finger at the likes of Payne too, even as an Ulster fan – he may be an excellent player who makes the team better but he isn’t .. y’know .. Irish.

      One wonders how the likes of Dave Foley, Darren O’Shea or even Donnacha Ryan feel about Jean Kleyn getting parachuted in with a residency cap in mind. It just all feels a little cynical at this point.

      • krustie92

         /  September 2, 2016

        It feels more cynical with the likes of Kleyn, Stander and Aki who are coming over so young and can reasonably expect a full international career as opposed to say Payne who the door was reasonably firmly shut by time he came over.

        • Have also heard Aki is open to going back to NZ (if Lam does). If its true, what does that say about our husbanding of him?

          • Christiaan Theron

             /  September 2, 2016

            That maybe but given the NZ depth of talent he has more chance of playing for the England RL team given the number of antipodeans who now seen illegible to play for them.

          • D6W

             /  September 2, 2016

            Bundee AKi’s interview the other week was pretty clear. ‘I will only play for Ireland if NZ don’t want me, so make me an offer NZ’.

  4. krustie92

     /  September 2, 2016

    If we Irish Rugby can’t compete for top end of Southern Hemisphere talent on open market then surely its best to keep on the few we have, particularly when they’re leader types and well bedded in. The fact Pienaar was so keen to stay but blocked will surely make it harder to sell the “Irish lifestyle” for a discount in player costs.

    The system is more crocked by having Test players who are nothing exceptional a la Kirchener and by buying players cos they can rather than because they should (Piuatau to Ulster). Leinster may not have a great white knight ready to replace Kirchner right now but they surely have young players capable now with similar or higher potential.

    I don’t know is this more mad conspiracy theory than anything but are Piutau in and Pienaar linked, even if they are not the point should still stand. If any signing/renewal should’ve been blocked centrally is Piutau. Ulster have back-line talent coming out of the wood work. Piutau is an exceptional talent proven by highlight reel from last friendly but is luxury signing surely stunting growth of a number of Irish players in Ulster or ones left in anticipation like Scholes.

    As for why I haven’t picked an example for Munster, don’t have players coming through in numbers enough and for specific positions the way Leinster/Ulster. So problems are deeper rooted than first team squad management.

    • ORiordan

       /  September 2, 2016

      It is dangerous reading too much into a pre-season game but Piutau oozed class and could end up being a huge box office attraction in his own right.

      I agree with you that Piutau gives Ulster even more of a problem accommodating all the backline talent should everyone be fit. Scholes and Arnold moved on but Rob Lyttle was very impressive in the pre-season games so the production line rolls on. A pity it couldn’t produce some baby-eating back rowers and a scrum half or two…

      • krustie92

         /  September 2, 2016

        I agree with the sentiment pre-season game doesn’t really say much but Piuatau showed his level last year at Wasps so its not like hes some free running SH speedster coming up against the more defensive NH style for first time this season.

        His signing goes against IRFU/Nucifora idea of maximizing talent usage and makes shifting players round and blocking renewals like Pienaars less agreeable to players and fans.

        Also if IRFU are the all-seeing Sauron blazer in D4 and enforcing the rule comes down to Gibson Park signing or Pienaar renewal then they should’ve forseen this and blocked Gibson for the overall health of Irish rugby.

        • ORiordan

           /  September 2, 2016

          Nucifora may just haggle out a deal on a case by case basis. Leinster may have argued that they had Boss and Reddan, both are retiring so they’ve done their bit for Irish scrum halves and are owed something. While Ulster have done feck all getting a successor to Pienaar so got short shrift.

          • krustie92

             /  September 2, 2016

            That would be a fairly loose argument Boss developed at Ulster and Reddan at Wasps, both were fairly fully established when they arrived at Leinster.

            I don’t know the exact timeline, did Pienaar and Boss ever overlap at Ulster? By looks of Wikipedia, they both moved at same time. Any idea who moved first?

          • ORiordan

             /  September 2, 2016

            Pienaar’s signing was announced about half way through the 09/10 season and he joined for 10/11. Apparently Boss was offered a new contract at Ulster but it was obvious he would just be playing second fiddle to Pienaar so he looked elsewhere and left Ulster for Leinster at the end of 09/10.

    • And as well as Piutau, they re-signed Ludik, who isn’t really any good.

      • krustie92

         /  September 2, 2016

        Off-season rustiness forgot about Ludik.He is an even more glaring example of what I was getting at with Kirchner. Obviously he’s project player eligible but its hard to make a case he’s worth starting in the Ulster team never mind worth an Irish cap. And at 27 when he arrived the guys he was against were much younger and only likely to get better, so a wasted signing and use of limited budget.

      • @completebore

         /  September 2, 2016

        It feels like Ulster spent some political capital on keeping Ludik which is just weird.

        I think another part is with piutau and coeetzee (that spelling is possibly a hate crime) they have too many top class players.

      • ORiordan

         /  September 2, 2016

        I think that is harsh on Ludik. I think he is a very solid player but having said that, I can’t see the logic of extending his contract at Ulster just so he can be IQ as he is never going to feature for Ireland. I think he is the type of player that Munster or Connacht would be very happy to have at the moment. But it is an example of the IRFU view than an opportunistic, journeyman, possible IQ player is more deserving than a clearly superior NIQ player.

        • Paddyo

           /  September 3, 2016

          I like Louis “the leg drive” Ludik (not my words Lynne, the words of Andrew Trimble) too. He has particularly suited ulster, with their otherwise young and skilful backline. To have an older, more experienced, versatile back who doesn’t seen to get injured much and can just run straight effectively and make yards from difficult situations…..it may not be overly glamorous but it helps take the heat off some of the kids to create go forward ball.

          I would agree though that I don’t think he is a potential international, not at all, but he has been very much what ulster needed. Kind of a Shaun Byrne role. Do they need him so much anymore?….I’m not so sure. I would’ve said yes for international windows, but stockdale looks like making the grade ahead of schedule and Lyttle has impressed too, though I doubt everything will just be as easy for him as it has seemed so far. I don’t see ludik playing too much this season, but don’t really see the problem with keeping him on if ulster rate him (they seem to) and they have the cash to do so. As it stands next season ulster will have only piatau and Coetzee as NIQ.

  5. Éist! Éist!! Muddle-headed thinking displayed by the Suits – again. The treatment of Pienaar is shabby and will hurt Irish Rugby by making the provinces less attractive to foreign players (as yourselves and the previous commentators have pointed out).

  6. Leinsterlion

     /  September 2, 2016

    Angus Lloyd is a quality player, watched him for Trinity, could easily jump on, real buzzing 9, quick pass and break. The entire point of the provinces is to develop depth for the national team, wholeheartedly agree with Pienaar being released on that count, Pienaar is not doing anything for the national side. However, I also agree with the last paragraph, Pienaar has given seven years to Ulster rugby for less than he could have gotten in France, that loyalty should be rewarded, for the IRFU to force him out for a project player is bad form altogether. Its mercenary to a player who bought into Ulster rugby and gave it his all, which in the mercenary professional game, you have to commend.

    We should be targeting getting rid of the second rate NIQ(the sideshow Bobs of the world) and project players altogether, ideally we should aim for one or two world class NIQ(Pienaars/Elsoms) to bolster the provinces and thats it. This “project player” business is a joke, you are Irish you play for Ireland, you are South African you play for South Africa. Project players paper over the cracks in the system and give a false impression of our talent recruitment and utilisation. How many extra academy places could we fill with all the NIQ/Project player, and focus on bringing on indigenous talent. Is the IRFU doing a good job, are the provinces producing enough players of the requisite standard? Imo no, we are not, especially if we feel the need to poach second tier SH players and hope they become IQ.

    What is the goal here, potentially fielding Irish teams that are one-third foreign? Its called international sport, you are representing your nation, your team is supposed to represent the best of Irish rugby, not what we can afford to buy in from the Southern Hemisphere.

    • D6W

       /  September 2, 2016

      Agree that we should get rid of the 2nd rate NIQs, we should restrict NIQ to world class players. (Sideshow Bob not great example, because at the time could be argued he was world class. He has become pretty ordinary at Leinster, seems to have heart problems.)

      Imo we should get rid of concept of project player altogether. By definition it is a young player that is currently not considered to have the potential to represent his native country, and somehow we will coach him to a level that will be good enough to play for Ireland. But definitely still not good enough to play for their native country, because then we are 99% certain to loose them. Bundee Aki case in point. That for me shows a total lack of ambition to have the best team in the world, which is what we should be aiming for.

      • Christiaan Theron

         /  September 2, 2016

        You do understand that by playing “catch up football” to innovations in development in the SH the IRFU are not aiming to be world beaters just competitors.

        • Paddyo

           /  September 3, 2016

          “The entire point of the provinces is to develop depth for the national team, wholeheartedly agree with Pienaar being released on that count, ”

          Is it?

  7. Andrew097

     /  September 2, 2016

    Bad decision by the IRFU getting rid of a player that fits in and delivers always for Ulster.
    When you think of the duds they have funded when they get they should keep a good one.

  8. ” when they get a good one they should keep a good one”
    Sorry it’s early in the season

  9. David

     /  September 2, 2016

    As an Ulsterman and an Irishman I have to say I feel pretty f*cking ashamed of the way we’ve ended up treating this guy. He literally gave us everything he had to give and the IRFU (and possibly to some extent Ulster) have utterly screwed him over.

    • D6W

       /  September 2, 2016

      As a Leinsterman I totally agree with you. I do hope IRFU re-consider, although I would say there are a few big clubs already looking for his signature.

      • curates_egg

         /  September 8, 2016

        He could have his pick in the Top14 and earn big bucks…but there’d only be bible camp at Montpellier.

    • Christiaan Theron

       /  September 2, 2016

      No doubt Shane Logan and his minions will spin this as an IRFU issue.
      Ruann was always going to retire or be retired and Ulster had seven years to prepare for that.
      However Logan and the three amigos will go on learning on the job when in effect they need replaced with antipodeans or Irishmen with an actual track record and achievements in professional rugby.

  10. Paddyo

     /  September 2, 2016

    Aki seems to be negotiating through the media a little bit as to just who he may declare for. I’ve even heard England mentioned and Gloucester is maybe the only place he has ever been over there and he has no family connection! It makes me uneasy. Ben te’o did the same and is no big loss in my eyes, but I guess that is aki’s prerogative. He is entitled to do this whatever way he wants, but if it doesn’t come from the heart, I’m not sure any good will come of it for him or for us and in my opinion he shouldn’t declare for us. If he has been won over by laptopgate and the Spanish quarter then: welcome aboard.

    I’m personally totally comfortable with someone coming over here and genuinely making a go of life here, then being welcomed wholeheartedly into the Irish system and team. Not to be prejudiced on account of good anthem singing, but Strauss for example is an Irish citizen. I wouldn’t have the neck on me to start saying an Irish citizen shouldn’t be allowed represent us. I lived in Australia for a bit and at one stage thought I would stay there. At that point I was committed to my future and for that (brief enough) period would have considered myself Australian and irish. I know if I had stayed I would want my children to be able to represent ireland too, if they could. Maybe that’s wanting your cake every way, or maybe it’s being from the north, where we tend to view nationality as more a state of mind than other people do. We can be all sorts of nationalities (and none) up here.

    On Pienaar, it just ain’t right. If we take it that there are 12 scrum half slots in the 4 provinces, then 10 of them are Irish qualified. 1 is a project. 1 is Ruan Pienaar, who is very much loved up here. Ulster do have a responsibility to bring through scrum halves, but they do have pretty much an Irish international backline otherwise. It’s fair to say they are pulling their weight. Pienaar remains a massive asset in many ways to ulster and by the positive influence he has given to Jackson (and to heron tonight) also to Irish rugby. Just as whiff have said. I actually have good time for David Nucifora and I like that he isn’t trying to curry any real favour (see his press release, direct to say the least!), but he could be doing with having another look at this one.

  11. Mike

     /  September 3, 2016

    Can Pienaar not just declare himself a fly-half? I hope Ulster use the money to sign Kieran Marmion just to make a mockery of this. Or Conor Murray.. that would be hilarious.

    I cant be fecked working it out.. but id be willing to bet Paul Marshall has had more Guinness Pro 12 game time over the last 7 years than any other Irish scrum half.

    • Paddyo

       /  September 3, 2016

      Don’t think there is a way round this unless Nucifora climbs down on it. Which he should. I think Nucifora is doing a decent job and as I said above I like his style. How annoying it would be if he was doing a good job, everybody loved him, everyone wanted him to stay, he was helping develop our young players, he loved it here and wants to build his life and his family here…….but we told him: sorry our policy is that your time is up and we have to give this role to some indigenous talent.

      • Paddyo

         /  September 3, 2016

        Not sure about the most Mike, but don’t think anyone could say Marshall’s development has really been hampered by a lack of game time. Maybe hasn’t started a massive amount of games, but has had plenty of minutes. If he was to make international level it would have most likely been as an impact sub anyway I would’ve thought. Duncan Williams and Marmion have definitely played a lot of minutes too though.

        I like Caolan Blade and Cooney at Connacht and Kerins was excellent at JRWC, so potentially one or two of those guys need a place to play, but I’d be surprised if munster turned any of them down.

  12. Been mulling on this a while, and having the benefit of reading through all the above comments here’s my take:

    To the letter of the succession plan, this is the right thing to do. Is it Pienaar’s fault? Only a little bit if even that.

    While he’s helped bring on the game of guys outside him immensely like PJ, Olding etc, Ulster’s supply of back-up scrum halves has been (that I can remember off the top of my head) Paul Marshall, Ian Porter, Michael Heaney, Paul Rowley, David Shanahan and Gus Lloyd. Half of those lads have left Ulster within 1-2 seasons of being stuck behind Pienaar (and Marshall, to be fair) despite having potential.

    While none of these guys have put their hands up to take that 9 shirt off Pienaar (barring the period where Small Paul and Pienaar were our best half back combination, because I was reminded of that last nice when they were on the pitch together again), Ulster *rarely* ever give someone a chance to, outside of Springbok duties or injuries, the latter of which have been rare enough.

    This speaks as much to how good a player Pienaar is , but it also speaks to a general vicious cycle in Ulster where a player isn’t trusted enough to start games that aren’t the Dragons, Zebre or Oyonnax (*cough*), and then when an injury comes in we’re suddenly in a crisis, because no disrespect, but yer man hasn’t had a huge amount of “games at this level”. This isn’t limited to scrum half either, although some positions have been worse than others and it’s a trend that seems to have thankfully died down over the last few seasons.

    I think a lot of the reaction to this is down to the man that Ruan is rather than the loss of the player on the pitch (although that’s a big part of it, for reasons above). Imagine if Munster were told 5 years ago that Doug Howlett had to go (assuming there was no sign of Zebo or Earls yet) or if Leinster were told that Isa Nacewa had to go. These are the guys that buy into the provinces wholeheartedly (twice over in Isa’s case) and if there were a provincial Hall of Fame for foreign players, they’d easily be in the top 5.

    To be brutal about it, I think this is Ulster getting a little bit of a taste of their own medicine. Over the last few years they’ve unceremoniously released a bunch of personnel in their push to the top (McLaughlin, Anscombe, Nick Williams to make room for Coetzee, various aforementioned scrum halves) while seeming to be able to bend the rules somewhat for NIQ signings (keeping Ludik and signing Piutau being the recent glaring one). Now that the shoe is on the other foot it’s suddenly unfair and we’re being told what to do and it’s not best for other players and business etc. Like many people have said, Ulster have had 3 years (since he snubbed Toulon) to try and build up a successor, and have either had little success or just plain not bother because they’ve not been bothered about it.

    At the end of the day, it’s impossible to not feel bad for Ruan (especially after a deserved MotM performance last night, although whether that was just the extra energy he had after getting his first pre-season in six(!) years I don’t know), all good things have to come to an end. Ulster have come on leaps and bounds since he joined, which was highlighted by BBC NI showing his try-scoring debut where there isn’t a swanky new stand in sight. Personally I’m going to focus on what he’s given the province and cherish this last season that we have him, because he’s bloody brilliant.

    If nothing else, it gives Ulster fans a new fairytale ending to run into the ground for the next 8 months only to be disappointed when Leinster or Glasgow and/or Saracens knock us out of contention for trophies.

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