Thursday 22 February 2018

Back to haunt the club that saved him

Playing against Ulster will be a new experience for Pedrie Wannenburg, having left the province last season to join Castres
Playing against Ulster will be a new experience for Pedrie Wannenburg, having left the province last season to join Castres
David Kelly

David Kelly

When Pedrie Wannenburg left his native South Africa, he was not only seeking to find a resting place away from the storm. He needed to find a home that he knew could not be destroyed by a storm of any nature.

Belfast became a home from home for a player who had lost his way. A sinner in need of a righteous path, Ulster launched him on a path towards professional redemption and personal salvation.

And when he returns to Ravenhill in the Castres colours tonight, he will do so with a mission to wreak havoc on the field and renew acquaintance with those who helped him to find solace off it.

"It'll be nice to have a reunion with the boys," smiles the South African back-row outside his new abode at the foothills of the Pyrénées. "Except this time I'll be on the opposite side."

Wannenburg never really wanted to leave Ulster; the IRFU's guidelines on overseas players put paid to his hopes of staying. But he was certainly glad to arrive in the first place.

Already a titanic figure in Springbok rugby, Wannenburg became the second player to complete a century of appearances in a nine-year stint with the Blue Bulls, with whom he won three Super Rugby titles and five Currie Cups. He also earned 20 caps for his country.

But his career in South Africa was tarnished by what he terms a trek on the "backslide", a temporary but damaging dabbling in a drugs and alcohol culture caused by the wrong kinds of friendships.

The revelations of his alcohol and drug abuse in 2010 ushered him away from his home country and towards a Damascene conversion in his personal life.

His then Bulls coach Frans Ludeke bluntly told him that he should "find something else to do." He refused that invitation.

Instead, Wannenburg got busy trying to find a way out of one life and into another.

Boarding a plane to Belfast in the summer of 2010 offered more than just a change of club and a change of environment far away from the blinding, beguiling lights of Pretoria.

In many ways, it rescued him from the brink.

"It helped me mature a lot," he said of his incredibly popular two-year spell in Ulster.

"Spending so long in one place like I was (in Pretoria), you have your friends outside rugby and you have some wrong friends," he recalls.

"So you can have a few backslides in that you go back to old habits.

"All that stuff is history and when you start somewhere else, you walk though that door and all that goes behind you.

"Belfast will always be close to my heart because it was a fresh start for me.

"I learned a lot when I played in Ulster. I learned to enjoy the game again. I knew if I played well, everything else can go to plan.

"But the most important part was learning how to enjoy playing rugby again."

His erstwhile Ulster colleagues will enjoy meeting up with their old team-mate.

"Meeting Pedrie again will add a bit of spice to it," says prop John Afoa.

"Once we've crossed that line it's 'got to go to work', so there will be no love lost, but I'm sure we will catch up afterwards."

Captain Johann Muller, who shared weekly bible classes with Wannenburg, amongst others in Ulster's deep-rooted Christian community, says simply: "Pedrie is a very good friend of mine."

Wannenburg had hoped to share a moment with one special person but, alas, that is one reunion that is impossible.

The death of Nevin Spence left him reeling, as it did so many others.

"It was really sad when I heard about Nevin," he says quietly. "He was a such a good guy. I imagine it was such a blow for the entire community."

Wannenburg's Castres side arrive freighting indifferent form -- they are sixth in the Top 14 table, with four wins and a draw from eight matches -- but on the opening weekend of Heineken Cup fare, anything can happen.

Unlucky

"We've been unlucky in a couple of games," he says.

"It's a fresh start for us. We will go out and give it our best short. We're prepared and looking forward to it.

"It's always hard to start away, against a team who reached the final last year and at Ravenhill as well. We'll give it our best shot."

Knowing that friendships still endure.

"I didn't really want to leave Ulster," he says. "I enjoyed my time at Ulster Rugby. But life goes on. If circumstances had have been different I would have liked to stay on.

"Embracing the guys afterwards will be special regardless of the result. That's the most important thing.

"It makes you think what life is really about. You have to enjoy every single moment in life. And not to take it for granted."

Wannenburg has learned that particular the lesson the hard way.

Irish Independent

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