Last night saw over 100 Ulster supporters gather in the New Stand at Ravenhill to welcome the new players to the province. After a few opening remarks from URSC Chairman, Iain Campbell, committee member Jonathan Bill took to the floor and introduced the stars of the evening who discussed rugby, their love of golf, and cheerleaders.
Paul Emerick: Has over 30 caps for the USA and has previously played in Italy and Wales. He joined the squad at the beginning of September to cover for an injured Andrew Trimble, and made his Ulster debut alongside… Andrew Trimble.
Adam D’Arcy: Our Wizard from Oz who joined Ulster from Manley rugby. After a successful trial with Ulster he signed a year’s contract and he made his debut in the win against the Ospreys.
Tim Barker: The Return of the Prodigal Son. He reluctantly left our shores in 2007, after spending four seasons with Ulster. He made appearances for Glasgow and Castres but now he’s back – bigger, better and balder!
Pedrie Wannenburg: The South African made his Blue Bulls debut in 2002 and played 99 consecutive Super Rugby games for the Bulls. His Springbok debut was against France in 2002 and he has 20 caps to date. He was the last of our South African signings, but there was no rush!
Ruan Pienaar: Played for Natal in the Currie Cup, and the Natal Sharks in the Super 14. His Springbok debut came in the 2006 tri-nations against New Zealand and he was one of the World Cup winning squad in 2007. Ruan can play 9, 10 or 15 and there are high hopes he’ll make his debut this Friday. His favourite recipe is spinach quiche – allegedly.
Johann Muller: Also played for Natal in the Currie Cup, and the Sharks in the Super 14. His debut for the Springboks was in 2006, against Scotland and he too was part of the victorious World Cup squad in 2007. He was previously captained the Springboks and he made his Ulster debut against the Ospreys.
To break the new guys in gently, Jonathan decided to start proceedings with a couple of his own questions before opening it up to the supporters.
What brought you to our wee country?
Emerick: Rugby, mostly. I had a contract with Parma which came to an end and fortunately I was able to come here and cover for injuries. Fingers crossed I will play well and be able to stay around for the rest of the year.
D’Arcy: I played club rugby back in Sydney, and Les Kiss was around two years ago – he watched me playing and asked me to come over for a trial, but I had already signed with the Warratahs. When he came back over to Australia, he asked if I was still interested in a move. He sent a DVD over, I was selected for a trial and that was it.
Barker: Despite leaving Ulster, I still had a great desire to play for here and fortunately the opportunity to come home arose. It didn’t take me long to make my decision. I’m back – and I’m definitely balder.
Wannenburg: I was looking for a new challenge as I had played with the Bulls for 10 years. I have been here before and thought it was a nice place to be and see how other rugby organisations were carried out.
Pienaar: I’m the same as Pedrie. I wanted to see what the make-up is like here and to have new challenges to look too. After the Super 14 and the Currie Cup, you feel you need something new and I’ve enjoyed the last two weeks I’ve been here.
Muller: I’ve come here for the weather! It’s quite hot and humid back home, so I’m enjoying the cold weather right now. It’s similar to Ruan and Pedrie. I played for the Sharks for 11 seasons and just thought it was time for a new task. I’ve always wanted to play in the Heineken Cup and when the opportunity came along, I went for it.
Is there anything that has surprised you when you came to Ulster?
Muller: The weather! In South Africa rugby is the main sport so it’s almost like a religion, because of that there is a bit of a drop in intensity here. I think the professional attitude of the squad surprised me – the coaches are fantastic and the amount of talent you have, has really stood out for me.
Pienaar: I’ve only been here for two weeks, but it is very professional. The new challenges have made it tough but I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds.
Wannenburg: What can I add to that? I was here in 2005, and I have watched the supporters get behind their team. It just feels like being back home, so that’s a great thing for me.
Barker: For me, it’s great to see how things have improved since I left! The new stadium and the new gym facilities at Newforge have vastly improved. The current squad is very ambitious and constantly looking forward, so it’s looking good for the future.
D’Arcy: The passion and interest from the supporters has actually surprised me the most. In Australia, rugby is the fourth or fifth choice sport there, so while there is some interest, it’s not as popular as it is here.
Emerick: The way the facilities and the operations are run and carried out has been surprising. Rugby is still a growing sport in the States, and to be able to come here where there is a good environment and you are playing in front of 8,000 fans each week, is a fantastic thing.
(To Muller) You were caught practising your golf swing earlier. Have you been to any of the local golf courses?
I came to Ulster with a broken arm, so I’ve only been able to play two rounds of golf this year. I’m a real keen golfer, so this morning, I finally decided to go and hit a couple of balls with Ruan. After two hours, it started raining, so we decided to pack up and leave! We met Rory (McIlroy) last week which was nice – I’m going to try and beat him!
(To all) We’ve been very interested in BJ Botha’s blog and his experiences of life here in Ulster and back home with the national team. If you had a blog, what would it say about your time in Ulster?
It was unanimous that none of the six guys would have a blog, although Paul Emerick was very interested in the sound of BJ’s, enquiring as to where he could read it!
Muller: I’ve been here for three months now and it’s been fantastic. I thought it would be really tough to fall into a new system as my wife, daughter and I were settled in Durban. I’d played there for 11 and a half years, but we have made so many new friends who have made the transition easier for us and it’s like we have been here for four years.
Pienaar: I’ve only been here for two weeks but the guys have helped me to settle in. I’m really looking forward to seeing all the fans as I’m used to playing in larger stadiums.
Wannenburg: I think my blog would be about positivity. I can’t find any negatives at all here – the squad is young and very exciting to be a part of.
Barker: Since I’ve been back it’s been very positive and my first game back with the crowd behind us was amazing.
D’Arcy: I came over here with a duffle bag and didn’t know anyone, but the guys have been brilliant helping me to settle in and made my trial very easy.
Emerick: What’s BJ’s blog? I want to check it out! The team has been great so I’m hoping to stay beyond the three months I’ve initially signed for.
(To all) Are you having any difficulty understanding what people say saying to you?
To which Emerick jokingly replied, what?
Emerick: I’ve had a little bother, as you talk quite fast and with the accent it sounds likes jibberish. (To which most of the crowd agreed – because it is jibberish!) We could be in training and a few of the guys will be talking, I’ll look up and be like ‘Oh sorry, where you talking to me?’ I’ve travelled a lot though, so I tend to pick it up quite quickly.
D’Arcy: It’s strange because in training you have the Northern Irish accents, these guys (Ruan, Pedrie and Johann) speaking African, and this guy (Emerick) shouting something you don’t even understand. Once I listen though, it’s fine.
Barker: I’ve had no bother at all! Although, when we stayed in Galway, I had to share a room with Paul. He got up and started talking to himself at 4 in the morning, so that was an interesting experience.
Wannenburg: I must say it has been quite difficult, especially Dizzy (Ian Whitten). I don’t understand that lad at all!
Pienaar: I’m getting used to it, but it is difficult.
Muller: I haven’t found it that tough to be honest.
The next question was for Pedrie and it came from a man in the crowd who asked, in African, Can you convince some of the Bulls cheerleaders to come to Ulster?
And to which, came no real answer…
(To all) Where is your favourite venue to play?
Muller: I have a couple, one of which is Kings Park Stadium in Durban as I played there for 11 years and it’s my favourite. The other would be Newlands – I have a very soft spot for Cape Town and they have beautiful scenery outside the stadium.
Pienaar: Kings Park is one of my favourite stadiums as it’s a special place for us Sharks. I enjoyed playing at Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff would be the other one I would choose because it’s a real challenge with all the people there.
Wannenburg: I have to say Loftus, and Dunedin, even though it’s a tough place to play at.
Barker: Aside from Ravenhill (which was met to an impromptu ‘Stand Up for the Ulstermen’), I played against Pedrie at U21 level in Ellis Park, Johannesburg which was a fantastic experience.
D’Arcy: I would have to say the Manley Oval in Sydney.
Emerick: I played the Hong Kong and Wellington Sevens and they are both brilliant stadiums to play in.
(To Ruan) What’s your favourite position – 9, 10 or 15?
(And before the poor chap had a chance to answer, Johann chimed in, ‘left wing!’)
I really enjoy playing at 9. I’ve played 10 for the last two years, but hopefully while I’m here I will have the chance to play at 9.
Are you going to teach the Hookers Africanns, for the lineout calls?
Muller: We thought about that but Pedrie struggles with that so we thought it would be best not too!
(To Pedrie) Are you looking forward to the Cardiff Blues’ visit?
I know it was between me and Xavier Rush, but I’m not going to focus on one specific player. I’m just going to play for my team and hope we can get the best result we can.
(To the South Africans) Have you had any contact with Peter DeVilliers since you arrived here?
Johann and Pedrie pointed to Ruan, but he apologised and said they hadn’t.
On that subject, do you think the South African union made a mistake not getting rid of him, and instead keeping him until the end of the World Cup?
Muller: I made my Bok debut along with Ruan in 2006 and we had a terrible year. We lost the tri-nations against Australia and New Zealand, then we won our last two games. We then came here and lost against Ireland and England, then we beat England at Twickenham. It was the same situation and people were saying to fire Jake White. I don’t know DeVilliers well enough to comment, but I’ve seen this move before in 2006 and we won the World Cup in 2007. You never know as 2011 could be the year we win again.
What do you find the main difference in the rugby played in your respective countries, compared to Ulster?
Emerick: The set-up in Italy isn’t as professional as it is here as, but the coaching in Wales is on a similar par to Ireland and it’s very high.
D’Arcy: It’s a very forward dominated game, with the packs trying to dominate each other and the backs don’t tend to see much ball, but it is a very high standard of rugby here.
Wannenburg: I think when the weather changes we will probably notice a difference more, as it seems just the same to us at the minute.
Muller: We get more decision making time in the game and time to get on your feet to make your next tackle, compared to the Super 14 which is very quick. If you’re on the ground and you’re not up on your feet straightaway, you’ll miss a tackle. It’s a nice physical game here and it’s great, but it is slower.
Any observations on the referees in the Magners’ League?
Muller: No comment!
(To Emerick) You said rugby is a growing sport in America. Why did you decide to choose rugby, instead of NFL?
Barker: Because he’s too short for it!
Emerick: I started out with Olympic style wrestling, and a couple of other sports (Baseball and Football). When I went to the University of Northern Iowa, football took up quite a lot of my time and when I realised I wouldn’t make it in the NFL I quit after a year. There was a Kiwi in my Chemistry classes and invited me to play rugby. It started as a very social thing and I became very good at it – I started playing in 2000 and I loved it.
Any thoughts on our prospects for the Heineken Cup?
Silence came from the six men.
Muller: Obviously we are up against very tough sides and it will be hard, but we’re looking forward to putting our strongest side on the field and if we can manage to keep everyone fit, there’s a very good chance we can make the play-offs and even win it if we put our mind to it.
We’ve all the chance in the world that we can make it to the top.
(To Paul) Do you think the two Italian teams in the Magners’ will help or hinder them?
I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Before that, it was the Super 10 which hosted the best players. I think these first couple of years will be hard knocks for the two teams, but it’s like any country which has regionalised its teams and it gives them something to strive to. There is no friction between the sides, unlike when I was in Wales and there was some tension between Swansea and Neath. In Italy, we tend to average 1,200 people to the games, so their main competition is football.
(To the South Africans) Last year we all enjoyed a Lions tour out to South Africa. Do you think it’s valuable that we continue to tour?
Muller: I think it’s a great thing and great for rugby. They played a lot of games and it gives the younger players to play at a really high level. They did struggle during the mid-week fixtures and you could see that, but the tour was one of the highlights of my career and hopefully it will continue into the future
(To all) Who do you consider to be your toughest opponent?
Muller: I would say Bakkies Botha – he’s a great friend of mine, but a really tough guy to play against. Off the field he’s a lovely guy, on the field, he’s not so nice! Paul O’Connell is another tough opponent, as is Dan Vickerman.
Pienaar: I’ve enjoyed playing against Justin Marshall and I also have a lot of respect for George Gregan.
Wannenburg: For me, it’s Jerry Collins. I thought I’d finally managed to get rid of him but unfortunately not!
Barker: I’ve played against Danny Grewcock a number of times against Bath which has been tough. Toulouse’s second-row Albacete is another difficult player to face.
D’Arcy: Back home, Adam Ashley-Cooper would be my toughest opponent when he is at club level. He’s just such a strong and versatile player.
Emerick: Felipe Contepomi for when he played at Leinster. I used to hate that line-up!
Is there something from back home that you all miss?
Emerick: I’ve been travelling on my own for seven years. You do get homesick at times, but you have to get out there and embrace the culture around you. The rugby guys are great but oyu need to make social circles outside of rugby too. When I lived in Italy, I spoke Italian fluently and that occupied my time. Apart from that, American culture is pretty wide spread and I can watch my American football here, so I’m a happy chappy!
D’Arcy: My girlfriend is coming over and my mum is bringing my golf clubs over next week, so it’s all good! I think you need to embrace the culture you’re living in, although I may say the weather in about a months’ time or so!
Wannenburg: Nothing too much. I miss my African music – I love it, but you are able to get it here so it’s okay.
Pienaar: I haven’t been here long enough to say!
Muller: We love our barbecues in South Africa and I think it was my second day here and I went and bought myself an all-weather and we try to have a barbecue twice a week. There’s a nice large tree in my back yard, so I went out with a pair of scissors so the rain can come but I’ll still be able to do my barbecues!
(To Ruan and Johann) What was it like winning the World Cup?
Ruan: It’s a great experience and something all of us dream about. I didn’t get onto the field for the final match which was a bit disappointing, but it’s a fantastic achievement, no matter what team you are. I was with a great bunch of guys and France was a great place.
(To Ruan) Spinach Quiche?
I don’t know where you got that!
Jonathan: Rugby World Magazine.
I think they interviewed another rugby player, because it wasn’t me!
Do any of you intend to follow Gavin Henson on Strictly Come Dancing?
Muller: Definitely not!
(To the South Africans) Do you feel you can approach the coaches and give ideas about play from a South African perspective?
Muller: They are very open-minded and are great. Pedrie and Ruan are very experienced guys and it’s great they can come in and help the younger players.
Do you see that as part of your role here, to bring the younger players forward?
Muller: Definitely. I’m on the wrong side of 30 unfortunately, so I think in two or three years’ time, if the locks and line-out callers become better players because of me, I will be a really happy man.
You’re obviously all here with personal objectives, but how far away do you think Ulster is, in terms of winning any silverware?
Muller: I think if we can get everybody fit and on the field, we can compete with any side in the world, and I truly, truly believe that.
Do you know who will be taking the place kicks on Friday night?
Ruan: No! There are a couple of very talented guys here who can do the job. I hope to play as well as I can too, but it will be a challenge once the weather changes and the wind and rain kicks in. I’ll be spending time practising my kicks and gaining confidence.
One supporter took the opportunity to thank the new players for coming to Ulster and told them, that as a long-time supporter of Ulster Rugby, he was really proud to see the six of them take to the field and wear the Ulster shirt with pride.
(For anyone, except Johann!) I think Johann has shown tonight, that he is a natural leader. He’s already been handed the captaincy on a few occasions. What do you think he bring as a leader.
Johann: Speak nicely!
Pienaar: I’ve known Johann for a long time and he’s a hard worker. He cleans his rucks, makes his tackles and is very good at his line-outs and I think that’s shown in his short time here. I have a great respect for him.
Johann: You spoke well!
Pienaar: I’m currently staying at his house. If I gave a bad answer he wouldn’t give me any food!
Over the last two years the IRB have tried to bring rules in for the scrum, to make it a scrum and not a lottery, as it seems to be at the moment?
Muller: I don’t know enough about scrumming, but I don’t like scrumming. It is a lottery and I think the referee just decided which side to ping every now and again. It’s always going to be a part of the game and is probably the difference between League and Union. It can be a great thing for you, or it can be against you. In South Africa, they are teaching referees how to judge a scrum. If it’s successful, hopefully it will spread and we will get a referee who can do it properly!
As players watching Ritchie McCaw, do you think if he didn’t wear an All Blacks’ jersey, he would have been sent off a lot more?
Wannenburg: Definitely, but I think if you are the best player in the world, then the referee will protect you slightly. I think he should have been getting a few red cards in his time, but if you can get away with it, then why not.
(To Adam and the South Africans) Is there any enhanced rivalry between the South Africans and the Aussies?
D’Arcy: I’m the only one along with Tom Court! No, not really, but there may be soon.
Muller: We’re waiting until the cricket starts!
And the final question of the night, courtesy of Holywood Mike…
Do any of you have any sisters, cousins or distant relations, who are, have been or want to be cheerleaders?
Emerick: I’ve sisters and cousins who were American football cheerleaders.
Holywood Mike: That’ll do!
Emerick: But they’re well past their prime now!