Rugby Union: Pienaar is pick of the new pack: Steve Bale talks to the captain of the Springboks who today plays his first game of the tour

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The Independent Online
In South African rugby, they seem to prefer their idols with feet of clay - which is not much different from anywhere else really, except that the obsession with the game and its endemic provincialism make the position of Springbok captain as uneasy as any in international sport.

Here, we can only imagine what it is like, perhaps akin to being the coach of New Zealand or the manager of the England football team. In South Africa, depending on your point of view, the national rugby captain is either a figure of the most profound respect or a cross between whipping- boy and Aunt Sally.

Enter Francois Pienaar, who is leading South Africa on their first visit to Wales, Scotland and Ireland for 25 years and, a stitched eyebrow having healed, makes his first appearance of the tour against Llanelli at Stradey Park this afternoon. Blond hair, good looks, patience, politeness, the articulateness of a qualified lawyer - the 27-year-old flanker is a public-relations dream. The living embodiment of the new South Africa.

But being the most instantly recognisable sports personality in white South Africa can equally well be a nightmare as a dream, as those of us who trailed after England during the summer remember all too well. Pienaar, both as player and captain, was the subject of a virulent and apparently irreconcilable national debate which could be characterised thus: if you were a Johannesburger, you were for him; if not, you weren't.

True, this is simplistic and maybe lacks understanding but it is not unique to South Africa, the anti-Auckland sentiment that exists in New Zealand rugby being a fairly precise parallel. And however uncomfortable Pienaar may occasionally feel, he has at least grown used to it.

'The pressure on me back home is tremendous,' he sighed. 'When you become captain they build you up to an elevated position and from that moment on every move you make is scrutinised, everything you do is criticised.

Sometimes that can be very hard.'

If this sounds like a bed of nails, Pienaar is not the first to be made to lie on it. Naas Botha, South Africa's first post-apartheid captain, was forever decried by his own people (outside Northern Transvaal, anyway) and Pienaar has the burden of being a Transvaaler which, ipso facto, means he is deemed suspect by the rest of the country.

But after 13 Tests as captain and specifically after one of his finest performances in leading Transvaal to the Currie Cup, he may finally be winning over a wider domestic public still struggling to come to terms with the fact that there is more to rugby life than inter-provincial rivalry.

Why, he can even afford to be magnanimous.

'I do sometimes think it would make a change to lay down the burden, to get on and play for myself without the responsibility of being captain,' Pienaar said. 'But it's such an honour and privilege to lead the Springboks and for every negative there are a lot of positives.

'It's also a challenge. If you don't win, the first people who are criticised are always the coach and captain. That's part of life. The thing is to make sure the criticism doesn't get to you, to try to make sure the criticism actually helps your game.'

Even if it makes Pienaar sound too good to be true, this is a laid-back attitude perfectly attuned to winning the propaganda battle that was unsuccessfully fought in the immediate post-boycott days. 'I have been like that all my life,' he said. 'There has been no special effort; nothing has been pre-planned except that you always learn from your mistakes.

'I believe I'm starting to settle in as a more mature captain. There is considerable pressure in South Africa but what is important is that the players accept me and think I'm the one who should be doing the job. It's simple: if I'm not right for them, then I shouldn't be.'

This is Pienaar presenting the cheerful and cultivated face of South African rugby, far removed from the sullen re-entry of 1992, when the Springboks who toured France and England found the experience not only unusual but decidedly uncomfortable. Since then, the successor teams who have been to Australia, Argentina and New Zealand have become men of the world even if they have yet to start winning Test matches with any consistency.

Once Botha had retired after the '92 retreat from Twickenham, the uncapped Pienaar was given the captaincy. He has presided over a frustrating run of mainly narrow misses. Of their 19 Tests since readmission to the international fold, South Africa, historic giants of the game, have won a puny seven and drawn two.

With next year's World Cup on home soil growing imminent, time is of the essence but Pienaar is not one of those - and there are plenty in South Africa - who would regard failure to win that tournament as a national disaster.

'When we took on the best in the world - New Zealand, Australia, France and England - in 1992, people said that's typical of arrogant South Africans; they think they're still at the top,' he said. 'But it wasn't that at all.

We had to get a sense of where we were at that stage. We played these teams and we realised we had a lot of work to do.

'We are getting very close to being a very good side. If you look at our New Zealand tour, we lost by only 12 points over three Tests. But we have to keep things in perspective. If we'd done it there, everyone would have said the Springboks were back on top but we're not on top and we shouldn't deceive ourselves about that.

'Obviously the World Cup is our goal and we're working towards it. We are at home and that's an advantage. Our team is building a good platform and we hope for significant progress on this tour. But if we don't succeed in the World Cup, we mustn't regard it as the end of the world.'

This may not play too well among the fanatics of the Veldt, or down on the coast for that matter, but thank goodness for someone - and a Springbok captain to boot - prepared to give rugby, even if it is a national religion, its proper place in the wider scheme of things.

(Photograph omitted)