Interview: Guiding hand of father Pienaar

The descent from South African national hero to rugby pariah helped to prepare Francois Pienaar for tough decisions as player-coach with Saracens. Derrick Whyte talked to him
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The Independent Online
THE LAST time I had a really good chat with Francois Pienaar was shortly after he had arrived in this country to play for Saracens, just over a year ago. He had the flu, as I recall, was fed up with house-hunting and traffic jams on the M25 motorway, and still more than a little numbed by the way in which he had been discarded by South African rugby.

Still, he reasoned at the time, it was good to get away. He was looking forward to just being a player, and planned to spend as much time as possible with his wife, Nerine. The pressure was off, and he intended to enjoy himself.

Fourteen months later and, it is fair to say, much has happened in the lives of the Pienaars. First, and undoubtedly foremost, Nerine gave birth to a baby boy last month. Both parents are understandably besotted. Secondly, all three Pienaars are happily settled into a Hampstead apartment. The days of rented accommodation and endless, fruitless house-hunting are well and truly over. And third, Pienaar, who hoped to be "just one of the lads," finds himself as player-coach at Saracens, a club who have not only moved to Watford FC's Vicarage Road ground, but are also lying second in the Premiership League, with the Tetley Bitter Cup Final against Wasps at Twickenham to look forward to on May 9th.

So, a quiet few months then, Francois? "Yeah, well," he says, as he laughs at the picture presented before him. "You could say that when I first came here it was primarily a big adventure for Nerine and myself. Now the challenge has outweighed the adventure."

He had not even heard of Saracens until, days before the club owner, Nigel Wray, contacted him, Pienaar had read that Australia's Michael Lynagh had joined the north London outfit. "I wondered what on earth Michael was doing. Then I met Nigel."

Before the end of last season Pienaar's pre-conceived view of life as a Saracens player changed the moment he was offered the role of player- coach. "Although I always planned to be loyal and give the club my all, I intended to spend the rest of my time at home with my wife. Becoming player-coach, however, made it a totally different ball game."

Why did he accept the offer, then? He takes no time to answer this one. "It was an easy decision," he says. "It was a challenge." Did he ever stop to wonder if he possessed any real coaching ability? "I had no doubts there at all. You see, I had ideas of what professionalism should be about, and when I was given the chance, I implemented them."

Although Saracens ended up sixth in the Premiership last year, a worthy effort after many years in the wilderness, they now find themselves in a position where a league and cup double is well within their grasp. That, by any club's standards, is some leap. So how has Pienaar done it? What aspects of professionalism has he implemented?

"When I was made coach I said to the team: `I'm looking to win every single match next season.' I know they laughed behind my back at this, and it turns out that we have lost three games so far this season. But I meant it. Professionalism is not just about receiving your cheque at the end of the month and putting on a good show. It's about winning.

"The challenge was to find the perfect game, where we combine skill, power and ability to such an extent that others, either watching or playing, say that we are fantastic to watch. I introduced some goal-setting into the club. As the season has progressed, so our goals have become higher, but we haven't got close to our true potential yet."

Seemingly small aspects at the club changed. "Everyone's got their own locker now. We all have our washed kit laid out in front of us in the rightful place. The shower and medical facilities at the club have improved. And we have post-match, and even post-training assessments, using videos and a stats library."

How was all this received? "A bit of a mixed reaction at first. It's difficult for me too, because I want to be one of the lads, but I can't be because I'm involved in hiring and firing, selecting and dropping. You have to share a laugh in the showers after a game, but players will come up to you and ask why they've been omitted.

"One was dropped for the Newcastle league game the other week. He brought all his statistics with him. He was an international, the club's top try- scorer, and had consistently performed well. He wanted it put on record that I was wrong. That was great. I'm allowed to make the occasional mistake, and when he came back into the team against Northampton in the cup semi- final, he was outstanding. It's difficult to be as close a friend because of my new role, but the guys know that whatever I ask them to carry out, I will do first."

He mentions the cup. What took a lot of people aback was Pienaar's instant display of emotion when the referee blew his whistle at Franklins Gardens. Here was a man who has lifted the World Cup back home in Johannesburg, in front of an adoring nation, and President for that matter. Here was a man who had led Transvaal to Currie Cup glory. And yet Pienaar celebrated at Northampton as if winning an English cup semi-final was his most notable achievement.

A self-conscious smile develops across the 31-year-old's scarred face. "It meant a great deal to me, that's why," he answers. "It gave me a lot of pride and satisfaction. It also meant a lot to those who believe in me, like Nigel Wray, like my wife, and like my father-in-law. He was running around the pitch with me at Northampton at the end!"

Unsurprisingly, the topsy-turvy events of Pienaar's recent career still bear heavily on a man who, less than three years ago, saw the South African President Nelson Mandela choose to wear a replica of his own No 6 Springbok jersey prior to the World Cup final. After 29 caps Pienaar's career effectively finished the moment the former coach Kitch Christie bowed out, to be replaced by Andre Markgraaf. Neither Carel du Plessis, nor the present coach, Nick Mallett, have felt inclined to reinstate the man who insists that he has been unfairly blamed for his role in the near-split in the game back home following the attempt of the Australian media magnate Kerry Packer to poach many of South Africa's top players, along with those from New Zealand and Australia, for his own, failed rugby merry-go-round.

"Don't forget, I was dropped, kicked out, and told I'd never play for my country again," he tells you. "It took a bit of time to get over that. I'm not bitter about it any more, but it has helped to motivate me in England, that's for sure."

Does he not feel that he still has a chance of becoming a Springbok again? "No, I don't see it happening. You always want to play for your country, make no mistake, but there's a lot of talent in South Africa, and their back row, in particular, has gelled together very well.

"But this is why it was so important for me to go elsewhere and achieve. I didn't want anyone to say: `What's Francois up to? Oh, he's gone over to England to take the money.' That, to me, would be a huge insult. I would compare any player who does that to a thief. I had as good a deal back home, but I came here for the adventure, and for the challenge. I'd like to think I'm proving my point."

Nothing, as Pienaar stresses, has been achieved yet. Saracens have to play league leaders Newcastle at Vicarage Road, as well as a tricky trip to Bath on Friday. But if anyone looks at league form when analysing the Tetley Bitter Cup final, Pienaar has a message.

"It doesn't mean an iota. It is totally irrelevant. The boys at Wasps will be so fired up it's going to be untrue. They will see it as their chance to redeem themselves. Winning the cup will turn a poor season for them into a success.

"Yet we know that finishing second in the cup is as bad as losing in the first round. We do not want to be runners-up in either competition. If we are, then it will be very, very disappointing for us. Never mind other games I may have played in. A cup final at Twickenham will be a big, big game for me."

And then what? Pienaar's contract with Saracens extends until the end of next season. His goals for Saracens are not yet achieved, and there are more adventures to have with Nerine and baby Jean. Yet there seems to be a distant yearning still to put things right back home in South Africa. To end his career fully redeemed.

"My options are open," he admits, as we stroll down the hill towards Hampstead village. "And judging by the last year and a half, who knows what will happen next.

"But I do know this. I'd like to play in one more Super 12 tournament before retiring." He pauses, clearly in thought. "I'd like to see how I'd be accepted."

He has no fears in London, however. If anyone in the world of rugby had predicted, even two years ago, that Saracens would be second in the league, and cup finalists, they would have been laughed out of the bar. Now it is reality and, as a result, a very satisfied South African can be found in north London.

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