Arguably PRO Rugby’s greatest transfer coup, Pedrie Wannenburg is an individual with three Super Rugby titles, 114 Super Rugby caps, a Heineken Cup final and 20 appearances for the Springboks. He has played in almost every major rugby tournament across the globe and garnered success in every venture. Yet this sporting pioneer is a remarkably humble man.
When asked about his reasons for joining rugby’s newest professional tournament, US PRO Rugby, he is clear: “It is the opportunity to give back what you’ve learnt over the years, to help to build a rugby league. I want to give back all my experiences to players that have been there but never been pro.”
Those experiences include games against Richie McCaw and George Smith, two players that Wannenburg describes as “phenomenal” and “genuine legends”.
Wannenburg’s vivaciousness, exuberance and brazen joy at being part of potentially something very special across in the United States shines through: “America will be a force to be reckoned with if things go to plan; the athletes in this part of the world are really impressive.”
He believes there is so much potential: “I think what will make it better is bringing in extra teams, bringing in extra foreign players that they need to improve the rugby.”
The initial few weeks of the tournament have seen improving attendances, growing media coverage and increasingly refined performances from all sides involved.
I think in the second year [Denver] will boom because there is already so many people asking us to come over, getting mail, getting letters, getting Facebook hits, all the interest.
That will work itself out, but if the second year comes up and the money keeps coming in then this will be really great.
Although now based in Denver, Wannenburg’s travels have seen him play for not only Castres and Oyonnax in the Top 14, but also Ulster in the Pro 12. From a playing perspective, there are few people better qualified to discuss the merits of northern hemisphere rugby in comparison to our southern cousins:
Northern hemisphere rugby is played over autumn and spring so the rugby styles change because of the weather changes.
It starts off fast and then it’s a little bit slow with all the mud, whereas Super Rugby is fast rugby and it’s always in dry weather.
There’s a little bit of rain when the season changes but in the beginning it’s purely fast rugby so for that reason super rugby is a faster game. When the European Cup starts off it’s pretty similar.
He is also an advocate for the introduction of a global season, although with the North making the transition to the summer, rather than the South playing in winter:
Everybody will play on the same turf. If the southern hemisphere moved to this side then I think it would not come out as well because you’re playing in wet weather in December and January so then the style would change as well.
However, Wannenburg is keen to reiterate that there is not an inherent difference in skill levels between both sides of the equator, rather it has much more to do with how their respective seasons are structured:
Look at one of the best centres in the world, Brian O’Driscoll. The skills are exactly the same.
You have to catch and pass, you have to draw a man, you have your offload during contact, so I think the skills levels are the same but a lot of it depends on the weather.
A former Bull, Wannenburg has a lot of faith in his home team and believes they are close to mirroring the successes of previous sides from times past:
I think in 2001 when Heyneke Meyer took over the team he built a young side and the average age was about 22/23, so I think [head coach] Nollis Marais is doing the right thing, getting young players involved.
It will take a bit longer because they don’t have a lot of experience. We had Joost Van Der Westhuizen, Victor Matfield, Jaco Van Der Westhuyzen – we had experienced players already there.
At the moment the Bulls don’t have that much experience, so they are building a side and they will make it in the next year or two. Look at the way they are playing at the moment – they are almost there, it’s just on the edge.
But something that stifles his natural enthusiasm is the prospect of the Springboks losing their springbok. ANC MP Strike Ralegoma suggested the logo should be removed from the jersey because of the connotations it has with South Africa’s deeply troubled political past.
I am heartbroken. To think about the legacy that has been beforehand… One coach said to me once: ‘so many legends have played the game before you and so many legends will play the game after you’, so for that specific reason for me it would be really sad to see the Springbok go off the jersey.
They call us the Springboks all over the world, are they going to call us something else? That for me is what is so sad about it all.
He is certainly more upbeat about South Africa’s chances against Ireland in the summer after Allister Coetzee was appointed the rainbow nation’s latest coach: “Allister’s a good coach, if you look at all his games won while he was coaching at the Stormers – after 2010 they were the most successful team in South Africa. I think he’ll do good.
I think he knows what he’s stepping into, because the SA government and SA rugby are growing hand-in-hand, so I think it will be tough but if you look at the moment the players we have is up there.
If you want to look at black players or white players we’ve got them, so I think we will be successful.
Ireland is also in a rebuilding stage with a relatively new coach so it will be interesting to see what happens this season.
Normally players play for a new coach, and then after that you can see how the coaching is coming through, so I think it’s going to be a good test.
One of rugby’s great pioneers, Wannenburg has seen and done it all, but he is only interested in improving, in growing and sharing the joy of this fantastic sport with as many people as he can. It seems the green shoots of professional rugby in the USA are the perfect project for Pedrie to carry on his unique sporting journey.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
Heineken Rugby Club celebrates and rewards real supporters who make the game what it is.