BY THE TIME the ball is booted skywards around 8pm on Saturday night in Paris to commence Ireland against South Africa, one strong connection will be pushed to the background.
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has named a starting team without a single Ulster player on it. Indeed, the only presence from the northern province is Iain Henderson among the replacements.
Ulster can claim to have a strong relationship with South African rugby.
They embraced it from the start of the professional era, though their recruitment took some fine-tuning. Grant Henderson and Russell Nelson were two early signings and neither particularly took off, according to Jonathan Bill of the Ulster Rugby Supporters’ Club.
“Grant was a full-back except he couldn’t catch and he couldn’t kick. He didn’t have much of a running game. I was about 35 at the time and thought I could have done better. Maybe he went on to great things. But I don’t think so.”
Off the field, two South Africans dragged Ulster Rugby into the professional era. Alan Solomons, a former practising lawyer came in 2001 as Head Coach and brought his compatriot Phil Mack as fitness coach.
Even though Ulster had just won a European Cup, they were like many others, gingerly making their way into the professional game.
Bill went along with a friend to a supporter’s ‘Question and Answers’ session once with Solomons in the hotseat. At the time, Ulster had brough Ryan Constable over from Australia and he had set hearts aflutter, a proper crowd pleaser with a reputation. But he wasn’t playing much.
When Solomons was asked about Constable’s absence, he answered, “We want him to be 87 kilos, and he is only 79 kilos. And that isn’t good enough for me.”
On another occasion, Solomons handed the serving club Chief Executive Officer a list on a page of pre-requisites for the hotels they were booking on away trips.
“And that was things like a swimming pool; that wasn’t because they wanted 5-star hotels for the sake of it, it was because they wanted it for pre and post-game recuperation,” recalls Bill.
“There had to be a bed big and long enough for Gary Longwell. Just things that you would take for granted now.”
As time went on, South African players made more impact. They loved Robbi Kempson, a famous pundit now, a purveyor of dark arts and ‘old-fashioned’ in Bill’s words.
Then came a genuinely exciting signing of Robby Brink. He was an actual World Cup winner in 1995 but in his limited enough experience he played against Romania and Canada.
Shoulder and ankle injuries prevented him from putting together any run of games and his career petered out.
By 2012, the influence of South Africa on Ulster Rugby was so profound that even The Scotsman newspaper was moved to publish a piece by Iain Morrison on the phenomenon.
At the time Ulster were on a run that took them to the Heineken Cup final, and eventual defeat to Leinster in Twickenham.
The margin of defeat was a record one, 42-14. Leo Cullen became the first captain to lift the trophy three times.
Dotted through the Ulster line-out was full-back Stefan Terblanche, scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, number 8 Pedrie Wannerburg and left lock Johann Muller, the captain.
A theme running through the relationship though, was their Christian faith, something that was always going to be find favour in a dressing room containing avowed Christians, Andrew Trimble and the sadly-departed Nevin Spence.
Take Muller for example. When he reached 30, he decided with his wife he wanted to move overseas. His chances of playing meaningful rugby for the Springboks was limited as long as Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha were in front of him.
Former fly-half and then club chief executive, David Humphries caught a flight to South Africa and presented his pitch to Muller, who felt at this point that his chances of making the switch were around 70%.
That weekend he went to church and an evangelist from Manchester was over. He picked Muller out of the congregation and asked him to stand up.
Once he did, he told him, ‘God has opened a door for you and he wants you to take it.’ Off he went to Ravenhill.
Pienaar had already played with Muller at the Natal Sharks. The notion of playing abroad was tempting and a couple of months into Muller’s stay, Pienaar jokingly asked if there was room for another Springbok in the changing room. It led to a phone call from Humphries and another smart acquisition.
“I am a strong and committed Christian, that’s what I stand for and I am not afraid to admit that, and now I realise that perhaps I find myself in Belfast and Ulster for reasons that are not entirely to do with rugby although that is obviously big part of it,” said Pienaar in 2013.
“I have been given the chance to be part of a really special community here and to give back by visiting schools and clubs and talking to anybody who want to listen about Christianity as well as rugby.”
Ruan’s father Gysie was a Springbok full-back in his own right, who according to those that played with him, was rarely without a Bible close to hand.
Some of the imports liked it in Belfast. Pienaar played seven seasons there and made 141 appearances, picking up 877 points. When he moved to play a couple of seasons with Montpellier, his wife and children remained back in Belfast.
Robbie Diack still lives in Belfast. Schalk van der Merwe isn’t a name recalled fondly by Ulster fans – injuries preventing him from making more than four appearances. But still, he liked it so much he came back to live here and farm livestock.
He produces the meat that Louis Ludik, a crowd-favourite in Ulster, uses for his South African style burgers and sausages.
Still going to Ravenhill for the raucous Friday nights, still moving in the same circles, adding a splash of the Rainbow Nation.2023-09-23T05:44:24Z dg43tfdfdgfd