Pienaar - from Bok captain to bank chairman

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 April, 2007, 12:00am

Francois Pienaar is not a man given to regrets, it's not in his highly focused nature. But he does reveal that not playing in the Hong Kong Sevens might be one of them.

'I might have played in 1993 or 1994, but coming from South Africa, we were heading into our rugby season and coaches back then wouldn't take the risk with youngsters for fear of injuries. Now the Sevens is used to blood youngsters, but it was very different back then.'

Pienaar may be perceived by some as being elusive, even aloof. When he captained his country to that famous victory at the 1995 World Cup, he seemed a man of steely reserve. A man who might hold to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle quote that 'mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself', and perhaps not tolerate imperfection.

In fact, he's just incredibly driven. 'To succeed at professional rugby, you have to be. I have known far more talented players than me. To go places, you have to sacrifice quite a bit, and that takes discipline, there is no 'X' gene of success, there's only hard work,' he says.

He's also humble and happy to speak of less glamorous times. 'I came from the wrong side of the railway tracks and I was fortunate enough to win two scholarships [for cricket and rugby] to the University of Johannesburg. It is here that I met my wife-to-be, Nerine.

'We were doing the same two degrees and are both barristers by trade, although I've never practised, she did. She gave our two sons their brains and good looks.'

Pienaar is also a firm believer in timing. Winning the World Cup in 1995 added impetus to what he defines as 'Modern South Africa'.

The way he expresses it makes listeners feel as passionate about South Africa as he does. Both South Africa and New Zealand - the fellow southern hemisphere giants they beat in that World Cup - share one thing in common. When it comes to rugby, winning is not the only thing. It's everything.

'Our country expects us to win,' he says. 'When we won on our home ground in 1995, it was at the beginning of a new era and the groundswell of support was phenomenal. At that time our motto was 'one team, one country'. We were blessed to have Mandela - an incredible leader. We were swept up in the tide of that new South Africa.

'That win really helped unite the country in so many ways. I couldn't believe the scenes in the streets afterwards, the ticker tape parade, the uplifting nature of it all. I didn't expect it, nor did I expect South Africa to unite like that.

'I can still go out and meet people in remote rural areas today and they have not forgotten how this unity felt in those early days and they still feel it. Sometimes they're people who are not at all interested in rugby.

'Our economy is growing from strength to strength. A lot of the world has been impressed by the new South Africa's successes. There were many around the world who sat with bated breath and didn't expect it to succeed as much as it has.

Despite this growth, he headed to England to be 'a Sarries man'.

'We went to England for a year or so, and ended up staying for six. I started out as player for the Saracens Rugby Club, and then moved to being coach and chief executive. They hired me to manage sponsorship, which is the lifeblood of rugby as an entertainment industry, and the role grew.'

These days, Pienaar is helping his country's economy to grow further as the First National Bank's chairman of the Western Cape region.

Although the company's headquarters is in Johannesburg, he is 'blessed' to live in Cape Town by choice.

'It's one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The things some take for granted are free there; clean air, beaches, mountains, our children can ride horses, swim and roam outside.'

Ever a man with a plan, Pienaar says he has always broken his life down into five- to six-year goals. 'My next goal is to spend time with family and our boys, Jean and Stephan, who are seven and nine, and to capitalise on my banking career.

'As I've just turned 40, life is also about checks and balances, and it's even more of a time to reassess. To succeed at anything, you have to push yourself where you've not been before, out of your comfort zone. You have to take risks, you have to make mistakes, and you have to make new mistakes, and keep making them all your life and learning from them.

'Sport is a wonderful education. You earn respect through it, you don't demand it.

'If your team win, you win. If your team lose, you have to accept it. And you have to accept your mistakes. They are great lessons for life and business, too,' he adds.

Pienaar might be from the wrong side of the tracks, but his train is well and truly on it and hurtling full speed ahead.