Ulster and Connaught lock horns on Friday night at Kingspan Stadium. As with all inter-provincial games, the significance is heightened by the prospect of local bragging rights. However, for Ulster scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, these games are taking on added significance this year.
As has been well publicised, Pienaar is being forced out of Ulster by the IRFU, against his wishes and those of Ulster Rugby. The Springbok will be forced to uproot himself and his young family come the end of the season and seek pastures new.
As such, each of his remaining games take on added significance as he seeks to make the most of his remaining time at Ulster, for whom he has played since 2010.
Speaking with Belfast Live, the 32-year-old made clear his intentions for his final few months at Ulster:
“I’ve played a lot of rugby this season and I’m still enjoying it and I don’t want to miss out on any games here at the Kingspan because my time is running out. I want to play as many times as I can in front of the home crowd.
“For me it is about enjoying every time I put the Ulster jersey on. My time is running out and I only have a handful of games left, for me this season my goal has to be enjoy it and not put too much pressure on myself performance wise.”
Such comments speak of the wisdom Pienaar has amassed during his playing career. Having been capped 88 times for the Springboks and togged out for Ulster 128 times, that experience will not be easily replaced at the Kingspan Stadium. However, last week against Clermont not even that nous was enough to secure a result for Ulster.
“Giving a side like Clermont the start we did wasn’t ideal, especially away to them where they have a fantastic record.
“Then I threw an intercept pass at the start of the second half which didn’t help either so you’re down 28-0 to one of the best teams in Europe in one of the toughest places you can go to.”
Attention now turns to Friday’s clash with Connacht. The men from the west have of course been a hot topic of conversation in recent weeks. Pat Lam’s decision to leave the province at the end of the season was seen as a serious blow to their future prospects.
The resilience of the team was there for all to see last week however, when they defeated Premiership high-flyers Wasps 18-16 in the Champions Cup in what was a truly stunning game. As such, they face into the game with Connaught on a much more positive footing.
“Connacht are playing well and there are some individuals who are in really good form,” Pienaar says.
“It’s a big challenge for us and we had a tough time against them in Galway.
“Pat Lam has done something right through this team and the way he wants to play, the players have adapted well and have bought into the plan and they’re comfortable playing in that way. They’re a good team, they won the league last year and that says a lot.
“I think with these interpros they’re always a big challenge and we’re looking forward to it, hopefully as a team we can perform well.”
Ulster currently sit in fifth place in the Guinness Pro 12 with a game in hand over the four teams above them. As such, Pienaar appreciates the impact a victory on Friday night could have on their league prospects.
“We still have a game in hand against Zebre and a win this week against Connacht will be massive for us going into the new year refreshed and on a high, there is a lot to play for and all the guys are raring to go and looking forward to it.”
Colm Egan, Pundit Arena
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