Having only arrived in Belfast last Thursday, one of Ulster’s newest signings, Pedrie Wannenburg, had the pleasure of a day trip to Portstewart on Friday with the rest of the squad for some heavy training, though admits he was given a pass and managed to avoid the sand dunes!
That said, the 6ft 5in powerhouse looks in good shape. Having been released from the Bulls following the end of the Super 14 campaign, Pedrie Wannenburg is well rested but has kept a level of fitness throughout the off-season so he arrives in Belfast raring to go.
And Wannenburg comes to Ulster with some serious credentials. He has 20 Springbok caps to his name and also represented South Africa at Schools, Under-19 and Under-21 level.
An incredibly consistent performer, he has spent the last 10 years with the Pretoria-based Bulls where he has won three Super Rugby titles in 2007, 2009 and 2010, and earlier this season became their most capped Super Rugby player in history with 114 games under his belt.
It is an impressive statistic, but made all the more significant because he played 100 of those games consecutively. He is clearly made of strong stuff and Ulster will hope to benefit from his consistency and availability this season, but when asked, he modestly said: “I’ve been really lucky so far, to avoid any serious injuries.”
A versatile player who can slot into lock, flank or the number 8 position – does he have a favourite? “I like 8 and blindside flank but I’ll play where the team needs me at the end of the day,” he admitted.
So after 10 years with the one club, was it a difficult decision to move? “Yes, it was tough but I needed a new challenge and so that made it a bit easier.”
No doubt, part of the desire for a fresh challenge came as a result of revelations that he had issues with recreational drugs and alcohol which hit the headlines earlier this year.
Although Wannenburg had never failed a drugs test, he knew it was time to make some changes. “When the story came out, I spoke to my parents and decided to face the issues, to be honest about it,” he said.
With the backing of his family he made some lifestyle changes, agreed to regular testing and turned to Christianity where he found help and strength. Now he prefers to look forward.
So, what does he know about the tournaments he will be participating in with Ulster this season? “To be honest, I’m not overly familiar with the Magners League, we don’t get many of those matches on television in South Africa but we do see some of the Heineken Cup and that was a big draw, to be able to play in that competition.”
Despite having moved a long way from his native country, he will certainly feel at home at Ulster Rugby.
“I went to school with Johann (Muller) and we played at the Sharks together for two years before I moved to the Bulls. I have also played with BJ (Botha) and Ruan (Piennar) and against Robbie Diack, so I’ll feel at home with a couple other Afrikaans speaking people…maybe we’ll have the lineout calls in Afrikaans!”, he quipped.
So did the fact that a number of his countrymen were setting up at Ulster influence his decision to come to Belfast?
“Yes, I suppose the fact that Johann and the others were coming here was a factor, it made it easier,” explained Wannenburg.
He also cites his conversations with Ulster’s Operations Director David Humphreys as a factor – the two played against each other back in 2004 when Ireland toured South Africa in June for two Tests. “It definitely makes a difference when you are talking about a move with someone who has played the game at the same level.”
Wannenburg won his last international cap in 2007 but with a World Cup around the corner and selectors sure to be looking at Ulster’s South African contingent, does he have any desire to reignite his international career?
“The chance is always there I suppose, but I prefer to look forward now rather than back, if it came along, I’d be happy but I’ve got a new challenge now.”
Even though at just 29 he has plenty of miles left in the tank yet, like Muller he cites part of his new challenge at Ulster Rugby as helping to develop a young squad.
“It’s an exciting time to be part of Ulster Rugby. I’ve got plenty of experience gained over the past few years and I’d hope to be able to share that with some of the younger players in the Ulster squad and be part of building an even stronger team for the future,” he added.
And of course, Wannenburg is not a total stranger to Ravenhill. In fact, he has a winning record at his new home ground. He was part of the Blue Bulls team that played a pre-season friendly at Ulster’s HQ prior to the start of the Super 14 in February 2005.
He scored the fourth try in the Bulls’ 24-9 defeat of Ulster but it was a flying visit that time. “We flew out the Wednesday, arrived Thursday and had captain’s practice that evening, played Friday and left on Saturday…it was a long way to come for a pre-season friendly!”
At least now he will have an opportunity to see a bit more of Belfast and beyond, having signed a two-year deal.
Having had the weekend to explore a little bit, Wannenburg is already feeling at home. “It seems like a lovely place and the people are very friendly.
“I grew up on a farm and even though I’ve been a city boy living in Pretoria I still have those farming roots, Northern Ireland seems to have a good balance of both.”
– With thanks to Ulster Rugby