Ruan Pienaar is one of the most skilful and versatile backs in world rugby, he can slot in at fly or scrum half. Capped 57 times, the 30 year-old South African tasted 2007 World Cup glory with the Springboks, and has a 2009 Tri-Nations title to his name.
Plying his trade for Ulster since the start of the 2010/11 season, he has become a crowd favourite at Ravenhill, helping the Ulstermen reach their first ever Heineken Cup final in 2012. But rugby isn’t the be-all and end-all for the modest Pienaar, who speaks easily and fluently about his faith.
“I have always believed, with my Christianity, that there’s so much more to life than rugby,” he says.
He believes God opened up a door for him and his family in Northern Ireland which he sees as much more than just a good career move.
“I said to my wife (Monique) before we came here that we had to be strong in our faith, and I believe that God gave me a door to walk through here at Ulster. ”
Of course it wasn’t an easy decision uprooting his life and moving thousands of miles away from family and friends.
‘‘Before coming here I went to church, I was really struggling with my decision to come to Northern Ireland.
‘‘The pastor there said that the move I was making in my career was the right one, but that I’m not only going there to play, I am there to touch lives and spread the word of God.’’
Pienaar helps to ‘‘touch lives’’ by going with other Christian players in the team to schools, men’s meetings and other events to talk candidly about their faith in God. This is often facilitated through Christian Vision for Men, an organisation whose aim is to “connect men to Jesus and the church to men.’’
Born in 1984 in Bloemfontein, a small town in the middle of South Africa, Ruan Pienaar is the son of former Springbok fullback Gysie Pienaar and grew up in a devout Christian family, in a denomination similar, he says, to Presbyterianism.
‘‘In South Africa you grow up going to church and Sunday school. I grew up in a Christian home and always went to church on Sunday.’’
Since moving to Northern Ireland he has been a regular worshipper at the Christian Fellowship Church (CFC) in east Belfast.
He explains why he selected this non-denominational church.
‘‘It’s a funny story, Johann Muller (his fellow South African player on the Ulster team) was over in Belfast about three months before we moved here and he Googled churches in the area where we live.
‘’We discovered CFC and went there one morning and really enjoyed it and have stayed there ever since - it’s very similar to the charismatic church we attended in Durban when I played for the Sharks.’’
Pienaar’s faith is simple and traditional: he believes there is a heaven and a hell and after we die there’s eternal life.
‘‘I believe that one day we’ll end up in heaven and live a wonderful life. I have never doubted for one second that the God I believe in is not true,’’ he says with fervour.
At home Pienaar tries to make time for Bible study every day, although he concedes that with a busy schedule, and two-year-old daughter Lemay running around, this isn’t always possible.
‘‘I think it’s important to stay disciplined and obedient in what you have decided to do, so that is a routine I’m trying to follow – just to have the same time every day to have Bible study.’’
And is there a passage in the Bible which particularly resonates for him?
‘‘It’s tough to single out one, there’s a couple I enjoy and I like to remind myself of them as regularly as possible.’’
Pienaar is fiercely proud of his faith, but adds: ‘‘I don’t walk with a Bible underneath my arms and think I’m the perfect person. I make mistakes every single day and I’m not afraid to admit that. But I think it’s just about
trying to set an example, trying to always be positive - that’s the way I try to live my life.’’
Traditionally rugby has a very tough, macho image, which some might see as at odds with spirituality, but not Pienaar.
‘‘I don’t really think so, however you do get into occasions on the pitch where you get tempted to lose it a bit. We try and behave as well as possible, but it’s not always easy, but I definitely think there’s a place for Christianity in the sport that we play. ‘’
And he isn’t scared to pull up a team mate if he catches them swearing, or if he feels the banter isn’t appropriate.
‘‘The guys on the squad know we don’t like it, so they would normally excuse themselves when they say something and say ‘Sorry Ruan’ or whatever. They respect what we are about and what we believe in - so it’s all good.’’
Pienaar can see plenty of symmetry between the worlds of rugby and Christianity.
‘‘With anything you can always learn, you can always grow - you’ll always make mistakes, but the harder you train the better you’ll get at it.
‘‘The more you spend time with the Bible, the more wisdom you’ll get and the more you’ll understand and it’s the same with training.’’
And this quietly spoken star of the sporting world says he has a lot to be thankful to God for.
‘‘He’s provided every time we’ve needed him or every time we’ve prayed about something he’s always been there for us, we’ve never lacked anything in our lives.
‘‘I’ve really been blessed with a wonderful wife, a wonderful little daughter, and I’ve got a fantastic support base in my family, so I really can’t complain.’’