I didn't come for the money
Former Springbok Pedrie Wannenburg insists helping Ulster return to Europe's top table his prime motivation
Published 21/01/2011 | 05:00
They're an easy target at which to direct your fire, ideal victims of the cheap shot. What on earth are all these South African rugby players doing over here in Ireland, the UK and France? Working hard on their personal pension funds, of course, say the cynics.
Aren't they creaming it financially, the whole lot of them? Aren't too many playing rubbish rugby? But do they care? Isn't all that matters the dough?
Well, those are some of the common perceptions in a few people's minds. But Pedrie Wannenburg wishes to offer a case for the defence.
Ulster's 30-year-old former Blue Bulls and Springboks back-row man puts a very different perspective on the whole overseas slant. He certainly offers a stirring defence of his own motives for playing northern hemisphere rugby.
Wannenburg, the first player to play 100 Super 14 matches for the Bulls, says flatly: "If you want money, if that is your only interest, you don't come to this part of the world. You go to Japan and don't worry about your rugby career any more.
"But for me, there was a different factor in coming here. I always wanted to play in the Heineken Cup and be part of it, even when I was back in South Africa. You get stereotyped playing South African rugby all the time, so it is nice to go to another place.
"It's not about the money at all; it's about what you can do for the team and enjoying taking part in competitions like the Heineken Cup."
Wannenburg will be spending tomorrow with Ulster in Italy, in Viadana near Parma, trying to help steer the province into the last eight of this season's Heineken Cup against Aironi. Last weekend, he was battling against the mighty men of Biarritz, the Basque club from France's Top 14.
Variety? You've got to believe it. "That is what I came here for; weekends like these," says Wannenburg. "And I am really enjoying it. I look back on my time with the Bulls with much pride and satisfaction. But in no way do I regret coming here for a new stage in my career."
And just to underline how much he feels at home with the Belfast-based side, Wannenburg has let it be known that he won't be rushing home any time soon, not on a long-term basis anyway.
He would like to extend his deal with Ulster for another couple of years and hopes that talks, so far in their infancy, may eventually produce a contract extension.
"I have another season left on my contract after this one ends in May. But I don't see my view changing, that I am very happy here.
"Hopefully, I will stay longer than that because it is a new challenge, which I am enjoying very much. It is a totally new environment to play in, so I hope I can extend my contract."
Just what is it about Ulster that Wannenburg likes? There aren't many jacaranda trees, compared to his old stamping ground of Pretoria, and those gorgeous, deep blue skies and the warm sun aren't on display too often, either.
But there are plenty of compensations. "What I like about it is that the team is young in many positions. There are only two or three guys over 30 and I believe if the set-up stays largely like it is now, we are going to build up to something that is going to be better in the future.
"I hope our experience (the South African contingent) can help that process so that we can create a real winning habit in Ulster in the seasons ahead."
These thoughts, you may well concede, are hardly in step with someone interested only in a quick pay-off and as little commitment as possible, before fleeing home to South Africa at the earliest opportunity.
Wannenburg develops the point about his interest in and respect for the Heineken Cup. "It's a great competition because there is not a big gap between any of the teams in these pools. There are no easy games, it doesn't matter who you are playing, which is a point we have to remember against Aironi this weekend.
"Anyone can beat anyone else on the day, so you have to get your preparation exactly right. I think we are playing well right now and getting our confidence levels up as a team. But for sure, there is a lot more to come from Ulster. You never stop growing as a team and learning, no matter what level you are talking about.
"Have you ever seen the best of anybody, whether it's the Blue Bulls or Ulster? There is always room for improvement from any side."
Munster and Leinster have dominated the headlines in the Heineken Cup most years, and certainly since 1999 when Ulster won the competition. But that doesn't bother Wannenburg.
"It's nice when they only talk about those two. It's nice to be the underdog because before anybody notices, we can be up there alongside them. And perhaps we can be better than them in the future.
"Leinster and Munster are and have been great sides. But we at Ulster are on an upward curve."
The rugby, he insists, is really tough. Last weekend's clash with Biarritz he believes was as physical a game as he has ever played. "So, the Heineken Cup has certainly lived up to my expectations. It's a tough tournament that produces some great rugby."
Mind you, it's not strictly true to say Pedrie Wannenburg isn't going home to South Africa. He is, in a couple of weeks' time, when Ulster get a break due to the Six Nations Championship next month.
It will be a special trip indeed. He is marrying Evette, his fiancee, at Kroonstad, not far from Pretoria.
A new bride and a place for Ulster in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for this spring?
Pedrie Wannenburg would be full of joy at that double.