Rugby Union: Pienaar sees bright future for Saracens

Captain demands a winning season to end his playing career in fitting style.
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The Independent Online
FRANCOIS PIENAAR goes into his last season as a player vowing to "go out and have some fun playing rugby". Do not expect, however, to see a smiling man in black trotting out on rugby union pitches around the country cheerfully waving to everyone.

The Saracens captain takes his game seriously. Like all players weaned on success, the only time rugby is fun for Pienaar is after the final whistle when his side have won. This season will be no different. The man who led South Africa to their World Cup victory in 1995 wants to bow out as a winner at Saracens and, with three competitions to aim at and a raft of new faces all bristling with talent and determination, that wish is likely to be realised.

But, given the club's long-term (and possibly far-fetched) ambition - "I want to see this club grow. We have to have dreams. It is our goal to make Saracens the Manchester United of rugby" - it is the businessman who then takes over. He speaks of turning Saracens into a brand name. One that is on everyone's lips and at the forefront of sports marketing.

To achieve that, though, he acknowledges: "We have to entertain, but entertainment only comes by playing the kind of rugby the spectators like, and obviously winning matches is a part of that. So everything points to us playing running, expansive rugby, which I see as the key."

Saracens harboured high ambitions last season, but it all came to nothing. Pienaar explains: "Last year our season was topsy-turvy, mainly because we had injuries in key positions - in particular at No 9 and No 10 - which made it really difficult to get any continuity going."

Going into the new millennium, however, all that has apparently changed. Pienaar adds: "This year the signings will show that we have depth in those positions now. We also have a balance of players in the forwards who can do the job. Our spirit is high and that is important. It is very important that we play a brand of rugby that is very exciting, but also successful.

"At this stage, fingers crossed, it looks good. I cannot really fault our preparations building up to this weekend's game [at home against London Irish tomorrow]. Our team spirit is really good, the squad seems to have settled in well, in particular the new signings. They have immediately cottoned on to the atmosphere that we have here. And the strength and spirit of the squad system will be very important this year because we are losing eight players to the World Cup."

Pienaar's forays into the transfer market have been impressive and astute.

"It was very important to us that when we signed a player he had to be someone good enough to play at the highest level continuously. We did not want to sign someone who sat on the bench and kept it warm all season. They had to be players who would come to Saracens, work really hard and try to make that spot their own."

Among them are the England wings Dan Luger and David Rees, who will guarantee searing pace out wide and a sound defence. The back three is completed by Mark Mapletoft, the full-back-cum-fly-half from Gloucester, and the former France international outside-half, Thierry Lacroix.

Pienaar is almost gleeful as he says: "We have the world's leading record points scorer in the Rugby World Cup in Thierry Lacroix vying for the fly-half position with Mark Mapletoft, who has been playing superb rugby for Gloucester. And in fact, in our first two warm-up games he has just been electrifying to watch."

For his part Mapletoft, who left Gloucester saying that he did not want to be stuck in a fullback rut at Kingsholm, fully expects to relaunch his career in the No 15 shirt. In all the pre-season preparations and warm-ups he has established himself in that position.

"I'm not that fussed where I play," says Mapletoft, who has played in all 12 seasons of the league. "I just felt I needed a change and when I was told that I would not play at fly-half for Gloucester, that gave me the opportunity I needed. I did not actually say I did not want to play at full-back. I would hope, after the way things have gone so far, that I would be in the starting line-up against London Irish on Sunday."

He predicts great things for his new club. "The players they have recruited indicate that they want to play an expansive game. They have the makings of a strong, championship-winning side."

The acquisition of Mapletoft is just a part of the grander scheme of things. Pienaar can barely contain himself. "It's going to be an exciting season," he said. "We are back in Europe and we are very, very excited about that.

"It is what we have always wanted, the big showcases; and one or two of those matches should hopefully attract a big crowd at Vicarage Road.

"I think it is the best pitch anywhere in the world and that includes Ellis Park Stadium [in Johannesburg]. It is really a privilege to play on such a surface. We have improved the training facilities at Bramley Road as well, because we have to if we want to be in the fast track, if we are to compete with the best in Europe."

For many people there can be only one destination for most of the honours this season. There will be silverware in the trophy cabinets and a smile on the face of Pienaar.