Heineken Cup: Springbok magic can break Ulster's French hoodoo
Pedrie Wannenburg thoroughly enjoyed his first ever Heineken Cup outing.
The big 20-times capped Springbok — 6’ 5”, 15st 7lbs of raw power — played for 66 minutes last Friday night and when finally he bowed out it was to a standing ovation from the 7,777-strong Ravenhill crowd, members of which clearly appreciated the huge contribution he had made.
But already he has consigned the 30-6 victory over Aironi to his sizeable memory bank.
Job done. Onwards and upwards.
Now there is an even bigger job to be done — away to Biarritz Olympique on Sunday.
As he looks forward to it there is a real glint in his eye.
“I look forward to every single game and to proving myself — not to the players, but to myself.
“This is going to be a big game for sure, but we always knew that.
“Biarritz away is a big challenge. They were in last year’s final and we have never won in France so it’s going to be tough. But we’re looking forward to it,” he says.
He has examined Sunday’s opponents’ back row options and, having done so, agrees that Biarritz boast a pretty impressive assembly of loose forwards.
But Wannenburg isn’t intimidated. The physical challenge of facing men like Imanol Harinordoquy and Magnus Lund does not faze him.
Indeed, there is a smile as he assesses the possibilities.
“I think we’ve got good back-row players and there’s going to be competition for places,” he muses.
“But that’s not just in the back-row — there is competition among all the forwards from one to eight, but we need that. This is going to be a very |physical game.” His description of Biarritz’s performance against Bath is “nine-man rugby”, with Dimitri Yachvili directing operations from the tail of the scrum and kicking the penalties won by the forwards playing in front of him.
“We know it will be physical but we’re looking forward to this battle up front.
“That is what you expect at this level,” he reflects
He has settled in quickly since joining Ulster.
He likes the pace of life and the people here, describing them as being “very warm and very friendly”.
The feeling is mutual, a fact confirmed by the warmth of the reception he received when he made way for Willie Faloon in the final quarter last weekend.
“I enjoyed it so much. It was really nice the way the crowd applauded.
“When I play I try to give something and the spectators seem to like that. They like to know you are trying very hard and that is how I play,” he reasons.
“That is my kind of game and I enjoy it very much.”
Wannenburg knows that Sunday is going to be the most rigorous examination of their credentials Ulster will have faced to date this season.
Their history in France is against them, as is the fact that having just been pipped by Toulouse in last season’s Heineken Cup final, Biarritz are determined to go one better this time.
But the Springbok cites Ulster’s progress.
“We are getting better day by day, week by week. At the moment we haven’t just got to where we want to be but eventually the dam holding us is going to break and the water is just going to flow through,” he says.
“It’s a step by step thing. Keep on winning, keep taking bonus points, keep building up those habits. That is how you progress.”
Looking at the squad he sees real strength, right the way through.
“We have young players learning from the experienced players,” he points out, highlighting the fact that it’s not a case of having imported a winning mentality.
In making the point he cites the part currently being played by Ireland’s Rory Best, Tom Court, Stephen Ferris, Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble in nurturing the Newforge fledglings.
He is confident that things are moving in the right direction.
“More and more I think we’re able to play the game on our terms. I am pleased with where we are at the moment,” he insists.
He and everyone else who cares about the game here will be even happier if Ulster manage to return from southwest France on Sunday night with something to show for their trek to hitherto barren territory.