Both Ruan Pienaar and the whole of Ulster Rugby were left devastated when the influential scrum-half was denied the chance to see out his career in Belfast.
After joining the northern province in 2010, Pienaar’s family settled into life well as the South African became an integral part of the team as well as a fans favourite.
However, despite longing to see out his days in the red and white of Ulster, IRFU performance director David Nucifora had other ideas as Ulster’s bid to renew his contract beyond the 2016/2017 season was rejected.
The decision was met with widespread anger from Pienaar, the club and their supporters.
However, hindsight can be a wonderful thing. Two years on and the former Springbok is back in his hometown of Bloemfontein having joined his boyhood club Cheetahs on a two-year contract.
Speaking earlier this week at the Guinness PRO14 media day in Cardiff, Pienaar admitted it was tough to leave Ulster but that ultimately he has to respect Nucifora’s decision.
“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. I guess at the time it would have been nice to finish my career at Ulster, but in a few years’ times I’ll sit down and think about my career and everything that happened, and you’ll think it wasn’t too bad.
“I had seven great seasons with Ulster and really enjoyed my time. It was very sad to leave there for me and the family. But it is what is it, you’ve got to move on. Somehow I’ve made my way back to South Africa, where I grew up and the team I supported when I was young. So it’s funny how things work out in life. You can plan how you want to but it doesn’t always work out that way.”
Going home wasn’t Pienaar’s first port of call after leaving Ulster as he initially moved to Montpellier where he spent two seasons in the Top 14.
The scrum-half is fully aware that the decision to move him on is part and parcel of professional sports. However, he does admit that it becomes even more difficult when players have young families involved.
“Yeah. 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 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 have got to respect that and move on.”
Family has played a key role in Pienaar’s decision to return home. His wife and kids initially returned to Belfast following what he describes as an “interesting experience” in France and it looked as though Pienaar would retire from the game and join them in their adopted home.
However, tragedy struck earlier this year when his sister Rene was killed in a car accident. It was enough for Pienaar and his family to make the permanent move home.
“It’s been good. If you had asked me 12 months ago, I would probably have been back in Belfast and probably have retired by now because France was an interesting experience… that’s a good way to say it.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity Cheetahs have given me to go back. I still enjoy the game, I still enjoy getting up in the mornings and challenging myself on the weekends. I enjoy the game and once you lose that, I think you know it’s time to hang up the boots.
“Apart from that, it’s nice to spend time with the family again and the kids have settled in nicely. As long as they’re happy, it makes it a lot easier as parents. It’s been good so far and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
“We had a tough start to the year with my sister passing away in the car accident, so that sort of prompted the decision of going back. Family has always been important to me and my wife, so it’s nice to go back to South Africa, to where I grew up and most of the family is still there.
“But then also to be involved in the Cheetahs and still playing, I’m very grateful for the opportunity they’ve given me.”
While his time in Ulster is now firmly in the past Pienaar still admits to having a soft spot for the men in white. He always wants them to win, just not when he’s on the opposing team.
“I’m still in contact with them and there’s some good banter going around and it was nice to play against them a few weeks ago. I know we’ve got them in February again at the Kingspan, so that will be interesting again.”
“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.”