Former Springbok flank Pedrie Wannenburg grabbed the chance to play in America’s new professional rugby tournament, writes CURTIS REED.
For at least a decade, America has been the ‘what if’ of the rugby world. What if it could get some players from the NFL to give rugby a go? What if it were to turn professional? The assumption has been that if the US could do either of those things, it would become a rugby power that could challenge for a World Cup title.
All this discussion of the US taking over the rugby world is hyperbole and ambitious at this point, but over the past year the country has succeeded in both those ‘what ifs’. New England Patriot Nate Ebner may not make it to Rio before he heads back to the NFL, but with Pro Rugby, America now has what it never had before – a league fielding a majority of American players.
Pro Rugby, which launched in April with teams in California (San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego), Colorado (Denver), and Ohio (Columbus), is the first successful launch of a professional rugby league in the United States. Halfway through its first season, Pro Rugby may not be setting records at the gate – it averages around 2 000 fans per match – and it’s too early to see the tournament’s impact on the national team, but the foundation is there for success in the future. Just as the Top League has improved Japan on the world stage, having over 100 US-eligible players playing full-time rugby for the first time is only going to help the US be more competitive in future World Cups.
While many of the players in the league are American, there is a strong overseas contingent. Former All Blacks fullback Mils Muliaina made his debut for San Francisco recently and helped his team to their first win of the season. Italian stalwart Mirco Bergamasco is leading Sacramento, and players with significant overseas experience, like Canadian Phil Mackenzie, Tongan Kurt Morath and Italian Filippo Ferrarini are also involved.
Another player who has taken on a leadership role is former Springbok flank Pedrie Wannenburg, the captain of the league-leading Denver team.
‘I had been trying to come to America for more than two years,’ Wannenburg tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘After a lot of dead ends and hundreds of emails, I finally got connected to the right people, who introduced me to Stephen Lewis. The rest is history.’
Lewis, who hails from Scotland but, like many expats involved in the league, has been in America for many years, is Pro Rugby’s director of rugby and part of a small central office that runs the league. Local game-day operations are left to the teams but, unique to only a few sports in the US, Pro Rugby has one owner for all five teams: Doug Schoninger, who is the league’s CEO. All expenses are pooled and player contracts are controlled by the league, not the teams.
As did many other players, Wannenburg found playing in America an opportunity too good to miss.
‘It is the perfect platform to use my experience to help young players and develop the game in the US,’ he says. ‘And then, of course, the opportunity to live in the States was one I couldn’t ignore.’
Wannenburg has been a mentor for a young Denver team that includes South African-born Hanco Germishuys, who is tabbed as a potential starter for the Eagles at the 2019 World Cup. One of the things readily apparent is the team camaraderie.
‘We’re just a bunch of nice guys having a lot of fun,’ says Wannenburg. ‘No one wants to be bigger than the game and everyone works together for the team and each other. It’s not always the case in all teams and when you get this combination, it’s gold. We work very hard together every day to become a better team.’
With stints at Ulster, Castres and Oyonnax after a long career with the Bulls, Wannenburg is in a unique position to gauge the standard of the new US competition.
‘It’s slowly but surely getting there. The standard isn’t high at the moment, because it’s so new and the guys haven’t played together for a long time. But we are improving all the time and if we give it a few years, the US will be a force to be reckoned with.’
Those behind the league and long-time observers in America understood that Pro Rugby wasn’t going to come in and compete immediately with the top leagues around the world. There are reasons that no competition has taken root in America until now, but the attitude is changing and more fans are tuning into rugby.
‘America is a sport-loving country and the supporters add to the rugby culture because you have different people coming together and wanting to learn the game,’ says Wannenburg. ‘I’m excited for the future of rugby here and to see how it develops with its fans.’
While the Eagles are still a decade away from being serious World Cup competitors, Pro Rugby is on track and players like Wannenburg can say they were there at the start.
‘Watch this space,’ he says. ‘We are going to wake a sleeping giant.’
– This article first appeared in the July 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine