OPINION: Humbling defeat for Ulster at hands of Pienaar-led Cheetahs

Ruan Pienaar led Toyota Cheetahs to a dominant victory over Ulster.
Ruan Pienaar led Toyota Cheetahs to a dominant victory over Ulster.
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It may have been two and a half (and a bit) years since Ruan Pienaar last wore the Ulster jersey, but seeing him run out against the Province on Saturday night in the colours of the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein was in many ways unusual.

His performance at scrumhalf was not, top drawer as always, just as everyone remembered him from seven seasons at Ulster.

He led the Cheetahs out for the PRO14 game, orchestrated things on the pitch, and by the time he had been replaced in the 47th minute, the South African franchise had racked up 42 points, Pienaar contributing six from six conversions. The 35-year-old is something else.

After a forced move away from Ulster at the end of the 2016-17 season, Pienaar had been playing in the colours of Top14 side Montpellier before finally returning to his hometown for the start of the new season back in the Celtic League’s PRO14 championship.

A family tragedy - his sister Rene had died in a horrific car accident early this year - saw the Pienaar’s decide to move back to South Africa.

I was lucky enough to catch up with the Ulster favourite earlier last week for a good chat around his and his family’s life since the IRFU decision not to allow him an extension to his contract in Belfast and while tragedy struck with the death of his sister, being back home is both good for him, his wife and three children.

He is certainly enjoying his rugby and his presence in a new look Cheetahs side will no doubt have them knocking on the door of the play-offs by the end of the season.

As for Ulster, the 63-26 reverse was a humbling experience.

This was always going to be a tough early season test for Dan McFarland’s charges and having watched the Cheetahs put 48 points on Glasgow last weekend, I had suspected the Province would probably come second best - but not in the manner they did.

Ulster’s defence crumbled, they could not get their hands on the ball even from their own set pieces and within half an hour looked exhausted - the high altitude obviously taking its toll.

To have conceded four tries to one by the interval had a bad look already, they were to concede three more by the ninth minute of the second half and it looked grim - a record loss was perhaps on the cards!

Ulster deserve credit for sticking at it and for a short while at least, showed some flashes of decent play which saw James Hume get a try. But even against 14-men, and with the bench emptied, Ulster continued to struggle but they managed to collect a try scoring bonus point after Dave Shanahan and Craig Gilroy crossed.

That is the only positive Ulster can take from the game, they now need to take a full five-point haul against The Southern Kings this Saturday on the second leg of their mini South African tour.

That will mean putting in a performance over the 80 minutes although it will not be difficult to improve on the Cheetahs display.

It is only week two of the campaign and it is a long way to those play-offs, but Ulster will want to make sure they are not caught out again in the way they were by a Cheetahs side, who have announced they are serious contenders for the title this season.

Ulster suffered a similar heavy loss to Munster at the start of the season last year, picked themselves up and progressed to the play-offs losing in the semi-finals - there is no reason to doubt they will dust themselves down again.

Meanwhile, at the Rugby World Cup in Japan, Ireland are building towards their showdown with Samoa on Saturday knowing a bonus point win over the Islanders will secure a quarter-final berth - even if topping Pool A is not totally in their control.

The bonus point win over Russia mid week was not so much redemption for what had happened in the shock 19-12 loss to hosts Japan, but it keeps them on course to reach the last eight.

Japan remain top of the group after winning against the Samoans on Saturday - leaving it late to clinch the bonus point - which means a win over Scotland in their final game on Sunday or even losing but taking two bonus points (try and losing) - a draw would even do it - would see them progress to the quarter-finals.

Ireland’s performance against Russia was unconvincing, despite getting the job done. They looked lethargic at times, flat in attack and again dipped off in performance levels during the game.

Looking at their potential opponents in the last eight, New Zealand or South Africa, and you can see the difference between sides playing with confidence or lacking it.

Ireland seemed to have lost that edge, they are certainly no where close to the levels they were in the Grand Slam 2018 season which included a Test Series win in Australia and of course the historic victory over the All Blacks in Dublin.

When it comes to knockout rugby, anything can happen, and it does, but it is hard to see Ireland getting past either South Africa or New Zealand in the quarter-finals and they will again have under-performed at a World Cup.

It is not the way Joe Schmidt will want to sign off his tenure with the men in green - but if you ask any coach before him, World Cup’s have a habit of spoiling Irish head coach legacies.

One of those former coaches Eddie O’Sullivan remarked that Ireland’s performance against Russia was like ‘watching paint dry’.

Of course he should be used to that given his record with the nation and more so the 2007 World Cup when the Irish struggled to defeat minnows Georgia and Namibia.