SCOTLAND go from trying to limit the influence of one world-class conductor to another this week as, for all the talk of South Africa’s route-one style, they have in Ruan Pienaar one of the most talented half-backs in the game.
When the Scots stood off All Blacks No 10 Dan Carter on Sunday, they paid with a machine-gun blast of tries in the second quarter that wrapped up the home side’s early competitiveness and tossed it into the bucket. Kelly Brown’s men know the challenge will be different at Murrayfield tomorrow as the first job is to compete with a Springbok pack that has less interest in tossing the ball around than their New Zealand rivals and draws more inspiration from smashing opponents.
But the South Africa team can also play and the variety will stem from their scrum-half.
Pienaar is forging a new partnership with Patrick Lambie, the 22-year-old with Scottish heritage, working out when to step in at first receiver and when to rein in his natural instinct for stand-off play and let Lambie get on with the job. The duo struggled in the first half in Dublin last Saturday but, as Lambie’s confidence grew, so the pair began to gel in the second period. Pienaar is happy to fill in wherever he is asked to, but is relishing the No 9 jersey.
“I have enjoyed playing at scrum-half and I think that is where the future is for me,” he said.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has suggested the role is Pienaar’s to lose in build-up to the next Rugby World Cup.
“That gives me a lot of confidence,” added Pienaar. “We have spoken a lot about how we can play and the coach likes the way I play, which is good. I have changed and grown as player. When I was 21 I would probably want to run everything, but you learn when that’s right and when it’s not and become a better player for the team. It is difficult when you move away from South Africa, but my family have really enjoyed it in Ireland.”
He will only be 30 when his Ulster contract ends in May 2014 and, while the South Africa Rugby Football Union (SARFU) would like him to return to prepare for the 2015 World Cup, he would not rule out another lucrative move – he is believed to be earning more than £1.2m for four years at Ulster – in the Northern Hemisphere.
Meyer has a plethora of talented players at his disposal but scrum-half was one area he needed to strengthen after Fourie du Preez left for Japanese rugby. Pienaar fills that gap and offers utility value but, with his intelligence, provides Meyer a play-making hinge to a more threatening game.
“What I like about him, firstly, is that he has an unbelievable kicking game,” said Meyer. “He is a great box kicker and he finds space. Because he is a big player he can also take the ball up and take the forwards with him.
“What has been difficult for him is that he has never settled on a position until now. When he got to Ulster he seemed to settle in at nine and he has become a much better player because of that.
“Losing Fourie Du Preez, who is probably one of the best nines in the world, left a huge gap, so having him fit in there has been really good for us. His father played for the Springboks and was an assistant coach at the 1995 World Cup. He grew up surrounded by rugby talk and that’s why he understands the game so well.”
Meyer desperately needs experience and stability right now. He took over this year having lost experienced forwards John Smit, Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha to retirement. Du Preez, Jaque Fourie, Wynand Olivier and Danie Rossouw left for big money in Japan and, back in South Africa, there is a casualty ward of household names in Schalk Burger, Pierre Spies, Juan Smith, Ryan Kankowski, Heinrich Brussouw, Bismarck du Plessis, Andries Bekker and Bryan Habana, all of whom Meyer hopes will be back next year.
So, Pienaar’s has even more value as an experienced totem on this tour and as part of the brains trust developing a game-plan to add Scotland and England to their Irish scalp.
Pienaar is excited at another Murrayfield encounter, and well he might be. Ever since scoring all 19 points on his Ulster debut against Glasgow, he has been a veritable thorn in Scottish flesh.
“I have a good record against the professional teams,” he said, with a wry smile, “but I don’t have a great record against Scotland [has won two Tests and lost one]. I remember the last time on the bench and we lost the game. The Scottish team has talent and what Andy Robinson has done in the last couple of years has been good. They really compete well now.”
When it is pointed out that the results have made Robinson less popular locally, Pienaar replies: “It’s always difficult to make the public happy but, as a player, I look at how they play more than the result.
“If you see how they played on tour in the summer and the way they played against New Zealand – there was a stat I saw that the All Blacks made double the number of tackles that the Scots made last week – a big stat you don’t see often with the All Blacks. Scotland also created chances but it’s about finishing them. I have a lot of respect for the Scottish sides in both the PRO12 and at Test level.”
The feeling is mutual and if Pienaar is as big a presence in tomorrow’s Test as Carter was last week, supporters will applaud, but Scotland will be in trouble. Pienaar added: “I expect this to be tough. We have a completely different squad and are in a rebuilding phase. We lost a lot of experience after the World Cup, but I think we are heading in the right direction and I believe it’s an exciting time for South African rugby and the squad believe that we’re going the right way with how we’re trying to play.”