Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Ulster flanker aims to turn up the heat

Springboks flanker Pedrie Wannenburg may be missing the 34C temperatures his fellow South Africans currently are enjoying.

But as he shivered following a Newforge training session in preparation for tonight’s Ravenhill showdown with Benetton Treviso — “I’m freezing,” he admitted — Wannenburg’s revelation that he loves life here, and would be happy to sign up again when his current contract expires, will have warmed Ulster supporters’ hearts.

“The people are very friendly so even with your climate I am very happy here. I would be willing to stay,” he says.

In the meantime those same supporters will be hoping to see him make things pretty hot tonight for the visiting Italians.

“I’m told this is the coldest winter here for 100 years. Minus 20C, I have read. And the water thing has been bad, too. That has been very hard for people, especially over Christmas,” he sympathises.

Next month he will get home to South Africa for a break at the start of the RBS 6 Nations Championship.

And following the Ulster v Aironi Magners League game on March 4, he and his girlfriend will again be returning to their native land where they are getting married on March 12. “I’ll have to offload the ball quickly against Aironi. My girlfriend wouldn’t forgive me if anything spoiled this face for my wedding day,” jokes the 6ft 5in, 15st 7lb human battering ram.

Becoming more serious, he admits that the mood in the Ulster camp initially suffered as a result of back-to-back defeats to Leinster and Munster.

“At the time we were a bit down, I suppose, but things have been picking up and now we are looking forward to playing Treviso.

“Two losses, back-to-back, are hard to take but we have come back from a position like that already this season,” he says.

That is a reference to the trio of matches lost in October. Following that unwelcome hat-trick, Ulster bounced back to win the next four, three of them on the road.

“We must not panic now. We must keep our focus, see what needs to be done and then do it,” is his matter-of-fact assessment.

Thoroughly professional in his approach, Wannenburg is an ardent disciple of the oft-quoted “one game at a time” philosophy.

“I know this is a big month but we have to concentrate on the next job rather than looking ahead to things further on,” he insists.

“Right now the most important game is the one against Treviso. That is where we must focus.

“Once we have come through that, with a win, then we can start thinking about Europe.

“The European Cup is a very big competition for us, there is no doubt. But the Magners League is our bread and butter so we have to get back on track there first.

“Hopefully we can do that against Treviso and then build momentum which we can then take into the next game.

“I haven’t thought about Europe since the Bath game and I won’t start thinking about Biarritz until after we have played Treviso.”

He is confident that Ulster are progressing, not least in terms of having toughened up mentally. When he arrived during the summer, he felt there was perhaps a defeatist attitude, a tendency to allow heads to drop when points were conceded. But that, he says, has improved significantly.

“In the past six months I think you have seen a fighting spirit emerging,” he said. “Before there was a bit of a ‘ah, we can’t win this now’ attitude if we were behind but now you see a team willing to keep fighting until the final whistle. That is very important.

“If you look back to that Leinster match, in the last 10 minutes we played really good rugby. We got the ball back in our hands and scored a good try from that.

“So I think that attitude has changed. Now Ulster try to keep playing and that is encouraging.”

He also feels that Ulster’s first-half display against Munster on January 1 at Thomond Park provided clear evidence of a squad moving in the right direction.

“The first half really, really was very good,” he said.

“Ulster played some great rugby, made line breaks two or three times and could easily have scored one or even two more tries.

“The youngsters came through and put their hands up. Their physicality was brilliant.

“They fell away in the last 10 minutes, but after playing for the Ravens it was a very big step to then go up against Munster at their ground.

“Just as there is a gap between the levels of the Magners League and the European Cup there is also a gap between playing for the Ravens and Ulster.

“But they are learning, they have youth on their side and that is very positive for Ulster.”

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