End of a Rainbow Warrior's reign

Pienaar calls time on Saracens and reflects on what might have been
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The Independent Online

Explaining his departure from Saracens, Francois Pienaar said the club needed a "fresh face and a new voice". A little over a week ago they were Graham Henry's sentiments when the New Zealander resigned from Wales. The other thing they have in common is that, as high-profile, well-paid recruits from the southern hemisphere, they failed to achieve their goals.

Henry decided he had seen enough after the 54-10 loss to Ireland; Pienaar was at his lowest after Saracens were beaten 48-7 by Leicester last weekend. "Francois has been instrumental in the transformation from an essentially amateur park team into a model professional rugby club," Nigel Wray, the Saracens owner, said. It marks the end of a beautiful relationship.

Pienaar will stay until the end of the season and will advise on a successor. Tim Lane, the Australian who worked with the Wallabies who won the 1999 World Cup and who has also been the backs coach with South Africa, arrives at Saracens tomorrow in a Red Adair role as a flying fireman.

"It's been very frustrating," Pienaar said, "and I hold my hands up. There's no perfect recipe but we've not recruited as well as we should have. You have to look at the overseas players and ask if signing the big names is the right strategy. The buck stops somewhere. I'm putting Saracens first."

The paradox lies in Wray's entrepreneurial approach. When the game went professional he bankrolled Saracens and turned them from a homely north London outfit into a major attraction with some extraordinary signings. Top of the bill were Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella but in December 1996 Wray paraded Pienaar in the West End and jaws hit the deck.

A year earlier the Springboks captain had lifted the World Cup in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela was wearing Pienaar's No 6 jersey and the Rainbow Nation felt as if it had struck gold. The image of one team, one country was broken when South Africa told Pienaar he was no longer wanted. His international career over, Pienaar signed for Saracens. Wray sold him the dream of converting the Sarries into one of the most successful clubs in Europe. They shook hands five and a half years ago and saw no need for a formal contract.

Pienaar joined as a player, was soon elevated to player-coach and became, for the last couple of years, not only coach but chief executive, despite the fact he had little or no experience in either role. Flitting from tracksuit to suit was no easy number, not for him, nor for the players. And the policy of going for a squad studded with internationals continued. Enter Tim Horan from Australia and Thomas Castaignède from France.

Saracens got off to a flyer last season but as soon as the Six Nations started they lost 10 players to various countries and their campaign unravelled. To make matters worse, Castaignède suffered a freak injury and Horan has also been sidelined. In one respect the star system worked. Backed by a huge grass roots drive in the community, the team began to attract good crowds to Vicarage Road, but when they lost more than they won and the glamour signings weren't playing, fairweather supporters stayed at home.

This season Pienaar's man management style came under scrutiny when Tony Diprose, Dan Luger, Danny Grewcock and Julian White left. "They all wanted to stay," Pienaar said, "but could we afford to keep internationals that we knew we would lose at regular intervals during the season?" Unrest grew with supporters attacking Pienaar on the club's website.

Last week he flew to Japan to arrange a 10-day pre-season tour for Saracens in the summer, met Wray on his return and announced his resignation on Friday. Wray said he could stay on as chief executive.

"If I was acting selfishly this wouldn't be my course of action," Pienaar said. "It was a difficult decision. There have been a lot of rumours and I wanted to put an end to them. I love the job but we now have time to do the right thing. I've worked my butt off... maybe too much." Following the resignation of Harry Viljoen, the Springboks are looking for a coach but the deadline for applications has passed and Pienaar's name is not in the hat. "I've still got a lot of work to do here and when that's done that's it. I hope to stay in rugby." Pienaar has a house in Cape Town and will move there in the summer.

The great Enfield experiment has stalled. Apart from winning the national knockout cup, Wray has little to show for his £6m investment and is reluctant to put in any more of his own money. As for Pienaar, it has been a strange journey from Ellis Park to Bramley Road. When he told Saracens his motto would be "losing is not an option", they almost laughed. He wouldn't have got that reaction in the old Transvaal.