Scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar will win his 50th Ulster cap when he takes the field in the top of the table clash with the Scarlets at Ravenhill on Friday night.
The South African is regarded as one of Ulster’s best ever signing and has amassed 357 points in his previous 49 appearances and is looking forward to his landmark night.
“I can’t believe it, it’s been really enjoyable and to get to 50 that quickly is really special. To do it at Ravenhill will be even better,” said Pienaar.
The Springbok pivot thought his international career was over when he joined Ulster but his form in the white shirt couldn’t be ignored by South Africa - he has now made 63 appearances for his country.
“It was a big decision for me to come over here and I probably though it was the end of my international career but thankfully Peter de Villers kept me in contention and so has Heyneke Meyer. It’s good to be involved and the ultimate is to play for your country.
“The move has been good for me and to still be involved back home is great as well.”
Pienaar sat out Ulster’s first defeat of the season at Munster but in spite of 11 changes from the side that beat Leinster they put up a good fight and he was impressed with Michael Heaney’s cameo from the bench.
“It was good to get a week off and get away from rugby for a bit. I have the family over here as well so it was a good Christmas but I’m excited to be back training and playing again.
“There were a lot of changes and it was always going to be a tough game for us, the youngsters that played did a very good job. I thought they played quiet well and they did a lot of good things so I think there is a lot of positives they can take out of that.
“We watch each other in training, we’d kick together and do all the basic stuff but apart from that we wouldn’t do too much together.
“I thought Michael did well when he came on. It’s good to have competition in that position, it’s good for the team and if you can get some good depth in all the positions will make us stronger.”
It is a pivotal three weeks in Ulster’s season, starting with a battle against the second placed Scarlets and then the concluding two rounds of the Heineken Cup.
Ulster are nine points clear of the Scarlets and Pienaar wants a big performance to go into Europe.
“I think it is important for us to get the year off on a good note because it is going to be a tough couple of weeks for us. We are playing a good Scarlets team this week and then we’re into Europe so it will be a tough challenge for us but I’m sure everyone is excited to be back playing again.
“They are a good side and they have a brilliant back line, they will be hurting from their last performance and will want to come over here and get a good result. It’s always a tough game playing against the Scarlets and we are not expecting anything less.
“It was a tough game over there and a couple of us didn’t play. I’d just come back from international duty, they have a good pack and it is going to be a tough challenge for us.
“Europe is not something we think about as a squad but individually we probably think ahead about that it’s a tough couple of weeks ahead but as a squad we know we have to prepare well for each game and if we can get a good performance in weekend it will be great for us going forward.”
Coach Mark Anscombe has called all his available big guns this week and Pienaar believes the rest at Munster will have done the team good.
“We are all professional players and we have to be able to adopt and I do think players need a rest just to get away and not to think about rugby, for the body and the mind it’s good thing but we’ll see this weekend if it was a good thing and I’m sure everybody was glad to get the body rested up for the next couple of weeks.”
Pienaar can play scrum half, out half and full back and in spite of a few starts and cameos at 10 he firmly feels nine is his preferred position.
“I don’t really expect it because I run on to the field expecting to play nine and then the next thing you’re moving to 10 but you just take it as you come. Hopefully I can do well in the other position as well but is not something I really thing about before a game.
“You would do a bit more kicking to cover the bases because the kicking game at nine and 10 is completely difference, at 10 you have bigger responsibility to get everyone outside of you organised but I’ve enjoyed the 10 minutes here and there I’ve played at 10 but it is good to have Paddy (Jackson) playing so well.”
The Springbok is tipping half back partner Paddy Jackson to go on to big things.
“I think he has matured so much since the Heineken Cup final. A lot of people thought he would crumble under the pressure after that game and it would have been tough for him to get through that.
“He is a great guy off the field and he has great temperament, the way he has come back and the way he had performed this season I think he will go on to play a lot of games for Ulster and get a lot of caps for Ireland.”
Pienaar hopes fellow South African Johann Muller will come back stronger after his injury.
“I think it has been tough on him. He’s disappointed. He was out with the thumb for seven or eight weeks and then the arm, he’s been in a better place.
“He’ll come back better and stronger, we all miss him out there he is a great player and leader for us but I think the players that have stepped in have done a fantastic job.”