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.