The final stop of Pedrie Wannenburg’s impressive career finds him helping to build up a sport in a country that seems ripe for success, and he’s loving every minute of it.
A three-time Super Rugby winner with the Bulls, the latest piece of silverware Wannenburg got his hands on was the PRO Rugby title with Denver Stampede.
And it’s safe to say that his first year in the USA surpassed his expectations, with Denver finishing on top a five-team competition which included the Ohio Aviators, Sacramento Express, San Diego Breakers and San Francisco Rush.
“The day I left France I knew it would be different professionaly from what we’re used to. I came over with an open mind in terms of what to expect from the training and the coaches and the players. Honestly the coaching is good, there are really some good players,” Wannenburg explains.
“We knew the first year would be tough, moving venues during the season, but from the first game to the last there was a huge difference in the quality of the games because the players start to know each other better, adapting to training every day, so there was a massive change of attitudes during the season.
“I wanted to come here to help as much as I can and the players have listened and seem to like that.”
Wannenburg’s plan now is to settle long-term in the USA and he’s picked up the enthusiasm already in the country for rugby as it continues to edge itself in front of the eyes of the American public, boosted by both the foundation of PRO Rugby and the introduction of Sevens at the Olympics.
Given Wannenburg’s experience of not just playing in Super Rugby but a memorable stint with Ulster and then in France with Castres and Oyonnax, he feels now is the right time to pass on what he’s learned.
“I just applied for my green card and with the attorneys we have been drafting an experienced letter from some of the players, and then I actually saw my CV for the first time on paper. And I sat there and thought “woah, this is quite amazing”, thinking about what I’ve achieved over the years. I have been very priviliged to be that successful, and since I’ve been here I’ve realised how fortunate I was,” he reveals.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play all over. I knew if I made the move now here it would be for the long-term, for my family’s benefit, and to give back what I’ve learned over the years. This is a great country in which to do that. There are a lot of good sports people in the world and if they all got behind rugby, then the sport here would be massive.
“There’s a lot of potential, and a way to go, to get people to realise what the sport is all about.
“One thing is learning to play off the cuff sometimes – so many of the American players have played American Football before where everything is structurised. Now suddenly you are playing offence and defence at the same time, which is overwhelming sometimes. A lot of players are catching on quickly. And also it’s the fastest growing sport in America, which is a plus for the future.
“A massive amount of people were talking about it already before Rio, and watching it.”
The hope now post-Rio is that more and more people will be interested in the league when pre-season begins next February, after an extended break with the possibility of expansion also on the horizon.
The long gap between seasons isn’t something Wannenburg is complaining about, able to relax after a long season switching from Oyonnax to the USA and to enjoy some time with his family.
Once pre-season does resume, Wannenburg hopes that the talented players he’s played alongside over the past season will be recognised for their talents.
“There are young guys like Hanco Germishuys who was the USA U19 captain, he’s brilliant. Then I played with Chad London who is South African as well. Zach Fenoglio the hooker who was with the USA at the Rugby World Cup. Peter Dahl has been playing for the USA as well,” he notes.
“There are a lot of good players who if they had been professional for a longer time, they could have made a bigger mark.”
Those players may find their time in the sport has come just too early before the sport explodes across the country, but Wannenburg has noted the enthusiasm of kids picking up the sport today. You sense that those stars of the future are the ones who will take the sport in the USA into a new age.
Wannenburg stated: “Having been to a couple of tournaments for the kids at U8, U9 and U10 level, people are going crazy about this sport.
“They’re starting younger and want to come and see the game. It’s a process, and it will happen pretty soon.”