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Move to Northern Ireland turned life around, says rugby star Pedrie Wannenburg

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 06/08/2016

Pedrie Wannenburg with his son Francois
Pedrie Wannenburg with his son Francois
With wife Evette, daughter Isabelle and Francois
Pedrie Wannenburg in action for Ulster

A former Ulster rugby star has described how moving to Northern Ireland turned his life around after he had been embroiled in a drugs scandal.

South African Pedrie Wannenburg first came to Ravenhill in the summer of 2010 after enduring the type of scandal that any sportsman dreads - his private life becoming headline news.

It began when a video was anonymously sent to the then-employers of the powerful back-rower indulging in recreational drugs at a Pretoria nightclub. The weeks that followed were uncomfortable even after he gave an interview, flanked by his mother Hansa, when he said he needed to leave behind the bright lights and the "nightclub friends" that had led his career off-track.

In Ulster he found the perfect place to do just that, a reason he says the province will always have a special place in his heart.

"For sure, it (his career) is definitely in two parts," he said. "I started off at home and there were some bad times, some real difficulties along the way.

"Just before I came over, that was when they were the worst.

"I knew I had to change something for me the rugby player but especially for me the human being. That's why Ulster will always be close to me."

Wannenburg showed great character to emerge stronger from the scandal and during the testing times he says he relied upon his religious faith, finding kindred spirits in the shape of fellow South Africans and former team-mates Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller when he arrived in Belfast.

"My faith, it has definitely helped along the way," he said. "My faith is close to me and there's a lot faith over in Belfast too. With Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller giving so much time to the church and always talking, that made it much easier for me too."

Having married wife Evette during his time here, their daughter Isabelle was born in Northern Ireland - son Francois would follow soon after his departure.

The 35-year-old's special ties to this part of the world are not just familial, however.

"When I left, I always talked about the place and everyone else does the same," he said.

"It's a great place and the rugby is good. It gets that reputation now and it's brilliant.

"No South African player who has been over ever has a bad word to say about Ulster or about living in Belfast.

"For me, it was special and always will be. The supporters are as big a reason for that as anything else. The Ulstermen, they still message me.

"I'll always be an Ulsterman to them and that's great.

"It really was a special time."

Since leaving - his final game for the province was the Heineken Cup final defeat to Leinster in 2012 - he enjoyed spells at Castres and Oyonnax in France.

When the opportunity came to play and move his family Stateside, however, to play for the Denver Stampede in the inaugural American PRO League championship, he jumped at the chance.

"It was never something I thought about," he said of joining the burgeoning US league, which has introduced innovations such as a red line on jerseys to indicate high tackles and the abolishing of draws.

"It has been crazy how the last years have went so quickly. Crazy, but it's exciting.

"To take my family and settle here with a five-year visa was very important."

With teams in San Diego and San Francisco, one could be forgiven for asking why he chose Denver, but the well-travelled Wannenburgs have embraced their new locale, just as they did Belfast before it.

"It's such a beautiful place," he said of the Mile High City. "Surrounded by the mountains, it's really nice. When we first arrived it was covered in snow and the next day it was all gone and the sun was shining.

"For my kids, I almost wish they could be a bit older to have more memories of these places we've been.

"We'll settle here in America though, and then they'll understand what they've done over the last few years."

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