April 28, 2012
Ulster's Ruan Pienaar celebrates reaching the Heineken Cup Final with some delighted fans © Getty Images
Big games call for big performances and they don't come much bigger than that delivered by Ulster scrum-half Ruan Pienaar.
The versatile Springboks international is a class act. He was coolness personified as he delivered crushing blow after crushing blow into the heart of Edinburgh's latest quest to make history having become the first Scottish side to grace this stage of the competition.
The 28-year-old Pienaar is no stranger to a big occasion having shared in South Africa's Rugby World Cup triumph in 2007, and how it showed. This was a semi-final in Europe's premier club competition, his province stood on the brink of their first appearance in the showpiece event in 13 years and an expectant 45,000 fans had flocked to the Aviva Stadium. But Pienaar is clearly not one for fretting.
There was not even a hint of nerves as he landed a series of long-range kicks in blustery conditions. But he didn't just make the kicks - there was never any doubt from the moment each kick left his priceless boot. A bit-part player for the Springboks of late, new coach Heyneke Meyer should spend less time on trying to lure other players out of retirement and instead focus on working out how he can utilise Pienaar's unrivalled talents. Time will tell if South Africa go against policy and he features against England in the summer but how Stuart Lancaster would love the luxury of being able to ignore such a gifted playmaker.
There has surely never been a more obvious choice for the Man of the Match and he received it in his usual gracious manner. In so many ways, this was just another game and it is not the first time he has proved to be a pivotal figure since making Ravenhill his home from home. Ulster fans will testify to countless victories he has spearheaded and how glad those same supporters must be that he is theirs for at least two more years. The Irish Rugby Football Union's desire to crack down on overseas imports with the aim of benefiting the national side is understandable, but there must surely always be room for game-changers of Pienaar's calibre to impress and inspire in equal measure?
But he was not the only one seemingly untroubled by the prospect of making or re-writing history. Semi-finals are not supposed to be like this. They are more often than not cagey affairs with the fear of failure acting as a handbrake on invention but try telling that to two sides that were here to play.
Perhaps aware that this game offered maybe their greatest ever chance to progress to the Heineken Cup finale, we were treated to two sides going out to do all they could to win the game - rather than play in fear of losing it. But don't be fooled - the refreshing level of creativity did not come at the expense of the brute force that normally lifts the intensity of Heineken Cup games to an intoxicating level - far from it.
The strength of Ulster's pack would ultimately swing the game in the 'home' side's favour while tackles like that by centre Darren Cave on Edinburgh's Jim Thompson will feature on highlight reels for many a season to come. Then you had almost inconceivable physical acts such as Edinburgh fly-half Greig Laidlaw somehow stripping the ball from the giant-like Pedrie Wannenburg in a moment that you sensed could have been game-defining but alas for the Scots it was not to be - just like the yellow card for Ulster's Stefan Terblanche. That proved to be nothing more than a speed bump on Ulster's road to the final thanks in large part to a lung-busting rearguard effort in his absence.
In the end, Edinburgh's creativity and enviable ability to keep the ball alive - they recorded a total of 16 offloads in a defence-shredding display - were over-shadowed by their failure to complete the simplest of skills demanded by the game, keeping hold of the ball. Errors ensured that their hitherto stunning quest for the European crown came to an end and while Ulster were not perfect, one of their players certainly was.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
Firdose Moonda talks to Rob Louw about the difficulties of being a South African touring New Zealand at the height of Apartheid
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games