Rugby Union: Pienaar presents new image of South Africa: Role model leads country against England in Saturday's first Test. Steve Bale reports from Pretoria

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The Independent Online
FRANCOIS PIENAAR has an image problem - it is too good to be true. But whether he be an idol with feet of clay, as some here would have you believe, or an icon, his is the smiling face of the new South African rugby. When the flaxen-haired flanker with the Adonis features was selected to lead the Springboks against England in Saturday's first Test at Loftus Versfeld, the emotion was unemotional: sheer relief that the fickle selectors had withstood the barrage of anti-Pienaar criticism.

The barrage itself was evidence that South Africa is still struggling to emerge into the international rugby world: that high-pressure, high-profile place where parochial loyalties are eradicated for the greater good. South African rugby has yet to overcome the provincialism inherent - unavoidable, really - in a generation of isolation, and Pienaar was very nearly its victim.

He may yet be. There is every chance that defeat by England in Pretoria would prompt his replacement by the admired alternative, Ruben Kruger, and there are plenty outside Transvaal who would gladly have seen the change made already. 'It has been a very anxious time,' Pienaar said this week . 'I've been under a tremendous amount of pressure and I don't really know why. My province lose the first two games in 30-odd since I started captaining them and all of a sudden I find myself fighting for my place in the Springbok team.'

For Pienaar, the effect of Transvaal's ill-starred April visit to the Antipodes in the Super-10 tournament was thoroughly depressing. As if losing conclusively to Queensland and North Harbour was not bad enough, he injured an ankle against North Harbour and was forced to prove himself when not ready by playing for the province against England last Saturday.

Ridiculous, given the sterling role he has played in leading the Springboks through Australia and Argentina and into the outside world. But there was more. Remarks Pienaar made in Brisbane about the strength of Transvaal were taken in Australia to mean that the Currie Cup holders should be chosen en bloc for South Africa.

'That misquote caused me a lot of hell in South Africa; it was all over the place in the media,' Pienaar said. 'I was asked how I compared the Springboks with Transvaal and all I did was make the point that Transvaal is very strong because we play together, know each other and have confidence in each other.'

England discovered as much at Ellis Park five days ago, when Pienaar deliberately paced himself in the first half and, his faith in his ankle restored, went on to play superbly once Transvaal had lost all inhibition in the second. After that, it would have been a strange decision to drop the captain, but it was still widely anticipated.

So, for now at least, we have Francois 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.

The wilderness years had left their inevitable mark and, with Naas Botha as captain, there was an unavoidable sense that this was the last kick for an old order. Pienaar, uncapped, succeeded Botha when France toured South Africa a year ago and will lead the Springboks for the eighth time on Saturday.

South Africa drew one and lost one against the French, then went on to win the first Test in Australia before losing the last two. Six months ago, they won both Tests in Argentina and now Pienaar believes it his right to reap the fruits of steady improvement and increasing empathy between the disparate and sometimes conflicting strands that make up Springbok teams.

'Obviously isolation harmed international rugby in South Africa but it did so particularly because our provincial rugby became so strong and competitive that the change, when we came together as Springboks again, was massive. Now, at last, we definitely get on together, so it has changed a lot.'

This is openness and honesty to which we have not been accustomed, certainly not during the boycott and not even when South Africa were permitted to reappear two years ago. But then Pienaar, with his good looks and articulacy, is a P R man's dream and whatever unsympathetic South Africans may think of him as a player, as a front man for the new South African rugby - and for the new South Africa - he is perfect, at 27 the very model of a modern Afrikaner.

'I was always under the impression that when the Springboks played they were representing all the people of South Africa and that there were never any hidden agendas, and I was always proud to represent everyone,' he said. 'But I realise that that wasn't the perception of the general public around the world. 'We always wanted to see those places and meet those people but, being young and in a sense indoctrinated by the state of affairs in South Africa, we never gave it much thought. It simply wasn't allowed, and anyway I wasn't close to the Boks then; I came when the changes came.'

Which makes Pienaar a bright reflection of the Rainbow Nation. Who, he was asked in a questionnaire for last Saturday's Transvaal- England match programme, would you most like to meet? Answer: Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk. As Mandela will attend the first Test and de Klerk the second, his wish is about to come true.

(Photograph omitted)