Nelson Mandela has given his blessing and all is right with the world in north London. Francois Pienaar, the former Springbok captain and one of the few men on earth who can genuinely claim to have united South Africa behind a common cause, has swapped Johannesburg for Enfield and signed a two-year contract with Saracens.
As recently as six months ago, the entire Sarries squad could have picked a route through a crowded shopping centre without being accosted by a single autograph hunter. Now, thanks to the millions of their proprietor, Nigel Wray, they have three of world rugby's legends on their books. Pienaar, who led South Africa to the 1995 World Cup, joins Michael Lynagh, the greatest point-scorer in the game, and Philippe Sella, its most-capped player, in a side as long on know-how as it is in the tooth.
The new signing, a massive coup for the ambitious Londoners, was unveiled yesterday at a virtual reality computerdome in Leicester Square - no one could describe Wray, who owns the venue, as one of life's Luddites, either in business or in rugby. The reality for Saracens' First Division opponents is that one of the most committed and resourceful forwards of them all is now on their case.
"I phoned President Mandela, because I wanted him to know the situation," said Pienaar, who lost his place in the Springboks side through injury during last summer's titanic series with New Zealand and then found himself out in the cold when the national coach, Andre Markgraaf, invested in a more youthful squad for the current tour of Argentina, France and Wales. "He said he was sorry to hear that I was going, but gave me his support. I was grateful for that."
Pienaar, now 29, also contacted Louis Luyt, the autocratic president of the South African Rugby Football Union, to inform him of his decision. Given that Pienaar's relationship with the big cheese of Ellis Park has been strained to breaking point over the past year or so, it is safe to assume that one presidential conversation was considerably warmer than the other.
His first game for Saracens will be against Orrell on 28 December. You can only pity the Lancashire side, who have enough problems to confront without locking horns with Pienaar. "It wasn't an easy decision, but the challenge is new and very exciting," he said. "I hope this won't be seen as high treason back in South Africa; I feel I will be representing my country during my stay here and, anyway, I would love to play for the Springboks again."
That appears unlikely at this stage. The 18 months left on Pienaar's Sarfu contract are now void; the current Boks are beginning to find their feet again after the trauma of their defeat by the All Blacks and even though Wray said he would consider releasing his latest capture should the South Africans require him at some point during the English season, he did not exactly look overjoyed at the prospect. "We want every Saracen to play international rugby but if the situation arises for Francois next autumn, we will have to see," he said.
Certainly, Pienaar has no immediate intention of renewing links with the Transvaal provincial side he has led with such distinction in recent seasons - "Saracens are my club now", he insisted - and with his new package worth at least pounds 200,000, he has no need to chase the big bucks south of the Equator. "I'm over the hurt of losing my Test place and while I've given my life to South African rugby and would do so again if asked. No player is bigger than the game," he said. "I need rugby and my rugby now is here in London."Reuse content