THE CONTEST between the opposing No 9s this afternoon could prove to be as attention-grabbing as the Mbombela Stadium itself.
The teams will run out for an historic first Test match by the Springboks in coach Heyneke Meyer’s home town to the sight of zebras all around them and giraffes towering above. At least, it will seem like that as the stadium has a unique design that mirrors the attractions of the nearby Kruger National Park. Very quickly, however, the focus of most stadium denizens will switch to how and where the Boks will exploit Scotland.
As Scots have discovered to their cost, on too many occasions, much of the creativity that unlocks defences stems from Ruan Pienaar. He was one of several world-class talents signed by Ulster as they started to mount a programme of multi-million pound investment to challenge the top sides in Wales and across Europe – and a Heineken Cup final and successive RaboDirect PRO12 finals point to the almost total success.
And while the influence of Johan Muller, Pedrie Wannenburg, Robbie Diack and John Afoa can’t be understated, no player has been more influential in that Ulster rise than Pienaar. At 29, the 6ft 1in half-back who moves with the smoothness of a snake is now one of the most experienced figures in the Springbok line-up.
The son of Springbok full-back Gysie Pienaar, he was born in Bloemfontein and came through the leading rugby school Grey College, but after two years with the Cheetahs and six at Natal Sharks decided to leave South Africa in 2010 – undoubtedly for the lure of what was rumoured to be a contract worth over £300,000 per year, but also because he fancied testing himself in a very different environment.
He has taken to the northern hemisphere like a duck to water, which is appropriate because his ability to transcend muddy wet conditions and still be the dominant figure in a game has probably won him the greatest plaudits, whether that is in the familiar No 9 jersey or wearing the No 10.
With Morne Steyn alongside today, he will be fairly quiet in terms of issuing instructions as Steyn is an experienced player, but his ability to read the game and spot openings is likely to be a key part of the Boks play.
Likewise, Scotland’s “Little General” Greig Laidlaw will use his experience of playing stand-off to help Ruaridh Jackson back into the Test seat, while also looking to get the better of his fellow nine-cum-ten. Pienaar is certainly wary.
“Obviously, I see a lot of Greig playing for Edinburgh and Scotland, and I have a lot of respect for him,” he said. “He is a fantastic player. He has a good kicking game, is very sharp and he is a very good goal-kicker as well, so when you play against Scotland with him in the team you know that you have to be careful not to give away penalties. I think he is probably the guy Scotland will look to to get momentum this weekend.
“I actually started out playing ten. When I went to high school I was the smallest guy at the trials, so they thought I should try playing nine, but in the last couple of years at school I got a bit taller and I have enjoyed playing in both positions though nine is where I think I am best.”
Moves to the northern hemisphere have brought many Springboks into conflict with their home nation, and ended the Test careers of some, but Pienaar remains as firm a part of the green and gold jersey as the Springbok itself, making more starts last year [seven] than in any other year since his Bok debut in 2006.
Meyer lost Fourie du Preez to Japan and after handing Jan Vermaak a debut last week, only for the Bulls scrum-half to suffer an injury, he is pleased to be able to call on Pienaar.
The cool customer will make his 65th Test appearance today, aiming for a 44th Test win, in a fifth meeting with Scotland. He experienced defeat at Murrayfield in 2010 and knows plenty about the opposition, having played against Glasgow and Edinburgh and often been the difference between the sides though his creative genius and/or goal-kicking.
“I do know some of the players, but, for us, it’s about focusing on what we want to do,” he said. “That has been our mentality this week – improving upon what we need to improve upon and going forward as a team.
“This will be an interesting game. We have a lot of respect for the Scots. They have a good team, even if they have injuries, and we know they will be very passionate so we are expecting a tough battle.”