Rugby Union: Pienaar climbs another mountain

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; Ian Stafford finds out how a Springbok is adapting to a new life in England
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The Independent Online
Francois Pienaar has a touch of flu. His fingernail is black, he has a couple of cuts above his eye and on his nose through recent battles on the rugby pitch with Saracens and, having sampled the delights of his first English winter, he is asking for any magic remedies.

His wife, Nerine, bustling around their rented Surrey apartment, likes the honey and hot lemon idea, but Francois is keener on the blast-it-out- with-whiskey solution. It has been another fruitless day of house-hunting in north London, followed by a murderous drive around the M25.

"I tell you, it takes me an hour and a half to drive from here to training at Enfield every morning," the latest big-name foreign signing for Nigel Wray's outfit explains. "I've never known a road like your M25 before. I was fined pounds 10 the other day for arriving two minutes late. I'd left home at 8.30 in the morning to get there for 10 o'clock, but even that didn't give me sufficient time. I hate being late because it shows a lack of discipline."

I tell him he has to move. He nods in agreement. "I've gotta get out of here."

The man who lifted the Rugby World Cup less than two years ago for South Africa, and who lunched privately with Nelson Mandela less than two months ago, is slowly discovering the pace of life in England. Some of it is taking a little time to get used to.

"I think the English are not exactly over-friendly, at least not at first," he announces. "Nerine and I drove into London when I first came here to look around. I got lost near Harrods and saw a gap in between people crossing a road. I started to drive through and someone kicked my wheel in anger. Another time Nerine sat down in a first-class seat on a train by mistake when she had an economy ticket. She was very embarrassed when the ticket collector explained that she had to move, with two rather reserved- looking English gentlemen sitting opposite, looking at her as if the cat had just dragged her in.

"Even at Saracens - and I want you to put this in your article - I have said to the guys, `Listen, whenever I greet you, greet me back. If I say good evening to you, it's good evening back.' Sometimes they respond, other times they don't."

He is saying all this, however, with a large grin on his face. After being sensationally left out of the recent Springbok tour of Argentina, France and Wales by the new coach, Andre Markgraaf, Pienaar is happy to be wanted, and genuinely looking forward to a sudden opportunity in life that he never expected nor planned would come his way.

"It's so good to get away," he admits. "I wasn't going to come to England at first. I was approached by a number of clubs, but I wanted to take a break for the first time in three years. I was going to drink beer, have some barbecues, go on holiday and relax. But then Nerine and I started talking about coming over to a new country and seeing Europe. We knew we might never get a chance again.

"I don't get recognised any more wherever I go, and the privacy will do my relationship with my wife a world of good. My Harley-Davidson's just arrived from South Africa, and in the summer Nerine and I will put on our leathers and discover Britain. We intend to ride up to the Lake District and Scotland, and over to Ireland. In London we will go to the theatre, see the sights, and enjoy a city where 14 million each day go to work. I'm also going to get a couple of your West Highland terrier dogs." He pours some coffee. "Yes, I see the next two years as a wonderful adventure."

His Springbok career seems over. After 29 caps, the inspirational captain fell out in a big way with the new coach who, according to the 30-year- old, saw him as the man of the former coach Kitch Christie. His dropping signalled a national outcry, prompting Markgraaf to soften his initial pledge that Pienaar had no place in the Springboks' future. But Pienaar cannot see a way back.

"As long as he's the coach he'll never pick me," he says. "I suspected I would be dropped because of disagreements I had with him. They tried to make out I was battle-weary and punch-drunk, but I knew all along it was a clash of personalities.

"What bothered me as much was how we lost the Tri-Nations tournament to New Zealand. It gave the All Blacks the key to the back door after their claims they had been poisoned before the World Cup final. I promise you this is a load of rubbish, but some people may start believing it after this result. South Africa did not give it their best shot in the series, and that was difficult, watching it on television, to take.

"But I've got over the frustration and the feeling of rejection. I'm just disappointed that, after playing 29 times for my country, captaining them, and giving my all to them, there was not more loyalty from the players. They never came out and said anything. I hope it was only because they didn't want to put their contracts in jeopardy. The fact that so many members of the public reacted in South Africa when I was dropped, though, was fabulous. It made me feel very small."

It also surprised arguably the second-most famous man in South Africa, because even though he lifted the World Cup and is on friendly terms with the president, Pienaar suffered at the hands of the country's provincialism. "It kept our rugby alive during the apartheid era because the fierce rivalry between the provinces meant that we competed at international level within the country. But it also meant that, even though I was the national captain, I was not particularly liked outside my own Transvaal. In places like Natal and Northern Transvaal, they believed that their man should have been captain. It meant that everything I did was scrutinised, whether it was rugby-related or not."

Such as? "Well, I was criticised for being the enlightened Afrikaner in the way I embraced the new system in our country," he adds, before laughing again and shaking his head. "Politics! It would be nice just to play rugby." Well now he can, even though he reckons it is taking a little time for his new club-mates fully to accept the fact that the current World Cup-winning captain is now among their ranks.

"I don't think any of the players knew exactly how to handle me," Pienaar admits. "Even though I don't profess to, maybe the guys thought that I would make out I knew everything because of what I've achieved in the game. As a result, I think they're still sussing me out a little. I'm particularly enjoying not being the captain, because it is allowing me to just concentrate on my game. I'm finding it difficult, though, to keep my mouth shut sometimes. I only want to help, but it could be perceived differently."

With all due respect to Saracens, playing for them at Enfield is a bit of a comedown after Transvaal and South Africa at Ellis Park, isn't it? "But it's a new challenge," Pienaar is quick to argue. "What else could I achieve in South Africa? In fact, I was in a no-win situation. After success with South Africa and Transvaal both sides were expected to win. If we lost, then I would be to blame.

"I happen to think that the northern hemisphere countries respect the southern hemisphere countries far too much in rugby. There is little wrong with your game. You certainly have the skill, the fitness, the passion and the commitment. You just have to learn how the game should be played a little better.

"People say that once you've reached the top of the mountain then there's only one way to go, and that's down. That's true to an extent. But I believe that when you've returned to the bottom of that mountain, then there is always another, higher mountain to climb. I'm not over here for the money. I could have earned the same back home, and been laying the foundations for business. But I will be one hundred per cent loyal to Saracens and Nigel Wray, as they have been to me, and I hope to play a part in helping the club reach the top in England."

Then what? Politics, perhaps, back in South Africa? Pienaar laughs once again and shakes his head. "You know, even the president told me he wanted me to play a big part in the future of South Africa, but I'm not so sure about politics. I'm still just a student at the university of life, and I don't think I've got the brains to be a politician. But I would like to become some kind of ambassador."

How about playing for England then, as you are clearly not wanted by South Africa? "Hey, I'd love to play international rugby," he answers. "Of course, I'd like to add to my 29 caps for the Springboks, but I can't see that happening." He pauses before, interestingly, repeating his hope. "I'd love to play international rugby."

He follows this comment up with another surprising admission. "The plan is to return home when my contract expires in two years' time," he says. "The funny thing is, though, that a lot of people in England, even South Africans and Zimbabweans who live over here, have predicted that I'll stay. I find that really interesting, and I intend to find out why for myself."

All in all then, despite the M25, the peccadillos of the English people, and the flu, Pienaar is happy to be here. "The only thing I'm missing are the free lunches back home," he adds as he shows me to the door. I tell him there is no such thing as a free lunch. "You're dead right," he agrees. "I've learned that the hard way in the past."

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