Castres' Ulster import Wannenburg praises 'unique' talent Heaslip
FEW players divide opinion in Irish rugby like Jamie Heaslip, but perhaps it is those who have packed down directly against him who know the Leinster No 8 best.
During his time at Ulster, former Springbok Pedrie Wannenburg went toe-to-toe with the Naas native several times, most notably in the 2012 Heineken Cup final which Leinster won well.
That was the South African's final game in white -- indeed, both of his last two games came against the Blues, although it was Sean O'Brien who wore No 8 in the league game a month previously.
Wannenburg has since moved his family to France to link up with Castres where he won the French Top 14 title last season.
On Sunday, he is likely to come face-to-face with the Ireland vice-captain once again -- albeit possibly off the bench, where he has been used most this season -- as speculation mounts that their on-pitch rendezvous could become frequent once again next season as Heaslip contemplates a move to Toulon.
And the 33-year-old former Bulls star is not surprised that the Lion is attracting so much interest in his current country of residence.
"Heaslip is a really good No 8, he's solid at the back (of the scrum), a hard runner and a clever player," Wannenburg told the Irish Independent.
"He was always difficult to play against -- I really rate him as a No 8, he has done well for Leinster, for Ireland and he's a tough candidate. He's a different player, he's unique for what he brings to the team and his experience is phenomenal for Leinster and Ireland.
"He's a really good player and any team in France or if he stays in Ireland... he would be a good player for any team. He never runs the same lines, he's always changing his way of thinking about the game and adapting to the way the game is going -- that's what makes him such a clever player."
The move to France has suited Wannenburg in some ways, if not in others. Like Ulster, Castres have a core of South Africans that act as a support network for newcomers.
He has struggled with the language, but the lifestyle suits and the facilities the French champions can offer are a step-up from Ulster's current set-up.
Although he has not been starting every week, the South Africa international, who won 20 caps between 2003 and '07, has enjoyed the week-in, week-out nature of playing in an attritional division.
"It is enjoyable to play week on week and then get your week or two off during the Six Nations. I find that when you don't play a lot of games and then you suddenly play two games and then you're out for two weeks, on and off, you can't actually perform, so it's nice for players to play week-in, week-out," he said.
"The language is difficult to be honest, it's not one of the easiest languages to learn, but the culture is really relaxed, very family orientated.
"We start training at 9.30am and we finish at 11.30-12.0. Then we go back home and train again at 3.30 until 5.0, so there's a lot of family time here. The food is really good, so the lifestyle wasn't a big change, but the language has been tough."
As for the rugby, there have been some adjustments for Wannenburg as he moves from the structure employed by Ulster and the Bulls to a more off-the-cuff game in France.
"It's more structured in Ireland, you know what you are doing in the next four or five phases over there, but here it's one off and after that ... then it's the flair of the players. That's the way it is, that's the way they play it and you can't change it," he said.
"It's why very few southern hemisphere coaches make it over here. The guys that are coaching in South Africa or Ulster as well, they don't like their structure, they play off the cuff, basically.
"It's something you have to adapt to after playing with structure for so many years, but it's nice in a way that you can go and play."
This Sunday will see the Top 14 champions have one last shot at the quarter-finals after a somewhat disappointing Heineken Cup campaign.
Defeats to Leinster away and Ospreys at home have left them needing to beat the three-time champions this weekend and then win at Franklin's Gardens to have any chance of progressing.
The loss at the RDS is one that lingered in particular, Wannenburg admits.
"It's not often you beat Leinster at home and I think that was up for grabs on the day. We played well, but we made mistakes," he says.
"If we had managed a result, then we'd have been in a good position. It's disappointing, but we can't look back, we have to look forward.
"You can never underestimate Leinster, when you think that they are beatable, they always come out and beat you. They've lost some players (since 2012), but they're still really good."