Faith of their fathers living still

Sat, Dec 3, 2011, 00:00

ULSTER RUGBY: JONATHAN DRENNANfinds that for Ulster’s three Springboks it was the lure of religious and spiritual compatibility that clinched their move to Ravenhill

IN BELFAST, it is difficult to avoid churches. Apart from the evident historical legacy they have left in the city, they stand on most streets. Ulster rugby’s home of Ravenhill has one delicately nestled in the shadow of its new stand.

The building is a subtle physical reminder of the importance that Christianity plays in the daily lives of many players at Ulster. Irish international Andrew Trimble was the first player to publicly talk about his faith when he first broke into the team, and others are following, slowly, but surely. The Christian players in the Ulster squad form a sizeable group who practise their religion regularly.

Faith is a delicate matter, and one these players take very seriously.

Just over a year ago, Ulster welcomed three Springboks to Ravenhill. The welcome was enormous and justified, Ruan Pienaar, Pedrie Wannenburg and Johann Muller shared 100 caps between them and brought some rare international glamour to the slate grey skies that tend to hang over Belfast.

Pienaar, Muller and Wannenburg amble into their training base at Newforge Country Club like three overgrown schoolboys who’ve been let out of lessons early. Ulster captain Muller is very much the head boy of the group and eloquently recounts his reasons for coming to Ulster.

“Me and my wife made a decision that when I hit 30, we wanted to move overseas. I met David Humphreys and he flew to South Africa to try and sell Ulster to me. We were 70 per cent sure, but we then went to church a week later.

“There was an evangelist over from Manchester and out of nowhere he said, ‘sir, can you stand up’ pointing at me. I did as I was told, and I was kind of shocked, but then he said ‘God has opened a door for you and he wants you to take it’. The guy told me he saw me over here and was using me for his works. It was a wonderful confirmation and we didn’t need to think twice.”

Ruan Pienaar, the multi-talented scrumhalf from Bloemfontein, speaks softly, but his carefully chosen words are marked with fierce passion.

“I had many offers from different places, France, England, you name it. But I have always believed with my Christianity that there’s so much more to life than rugby. I said to my wife before we came here that we had to be strong in our faith and I believe that God gave me a door to walk through here at Ulster.

“Being here gives me an enormous sense of purpose, I am not just here for rugby, I’m here to touch lives.”

Pedrie Wannenburg came to Ulster seeking more than spiritual redemption; he needed a fresh start after succumbing to the bright lights of Pretoria. The flanker sighs and looks at the ground when he recalls the mistakes he has made in the past.

“Ag, I’m so happy now. I’ve found peace here. Back home, I loved the lights. I had friends outside of rugby that were helping me make mistakes I shouldn’t have made. I was windgat (boastful) and doing things I probably shouldn’t have.

“Now I’m leading a different life, I still slip up like anyone, but Im not shy about sharing my faith and I want to talk about it.”

The three men are extremely close friends. Their families all socialise and they attend the same church together in east Belfast.

“We’re just part of the crowd there, which is the way we like it,” says Pienaar.

They are quick to point out shared cultural differences they have found in the dressingroom in terms of faith. In South Africa, the whole team will gather to pray before and after matches.

This was an adjustment for men used to public shows of faith, in a country that often espouses a personal relationship with your God.

Wannenburg talks about the need to adjust for the three friends. “It was something different when we came to Ulster, back home there are always bible studies (for the team). In the team, most of the guys will get involved.

“Then someone will lead the prayers before the game, and always after, win or lose, it doesn’t matter. Here, some players do pray, but it’s a personal thing, you do it in your own time.”

Muller smiles wryly at his friend’s words and admits that changing ways in Ulster can be a bit slow. “We’ve been a bit slack in getting a Bible study going here, Pedrie, Ruan and I have been here a year. It’s still something we’re passionate about doing at some stage and I know that you’d get a good turnout of players at it, but, equally, we don’t want to force the Bible down anybody’s throat.”

All three players grew up in a culture that promotes Christianity from a young age. Their schooldays were punctuated by regimented religion in assembly and in the classroom. It was only later in life that they truly engaged with their Christianity.

Muller says: “Listen, I’m still a work in progress, I fail every single day, we all do, but I’m just trying to face that challenge every day, you’ve got to keep going through the good times and also the bad times, and your faith will sustain you.”

Muller, Pienaar and Wannenburg speak warmly of the welcome they have received in Ulster. The players have taken the people to their hearts.

Wannenburg says: “People here just get on with everything, like if it rains at home, we’ll be under the blankets moaning, here you’ll see everyone outside walking with their prams in pouring rain, I love the way people here find pleasure in the small things.”

At supporters’ club events, it’s not uncommon for one of the players to get asked about their faith and they relish the opportunity. All three players are popular fixtures at school assemblies across Northern Ireland.

“We’re just rugby players, our talent has given us a vehicle to be able to engage with people,” says Pienaar.

Paddy McAllister, the young prop from Armagh grew up in Kenya for the early part of his childhood, raised by two parents who were missionaries based in Africa. His easy relationship with Africa and Ireland gives him an appreciation of his South African team-mates’ brand of Christianity, whilst also understanding the reserve that characterises many of his local team-mates when talking about their faith.

“In Northern Ireland I suppose we can be a bit more private about faith. Growing up in Africa, I learnt to be thankful for everything. I’ve seen things that I know nobody here has seen and maybe that makes me a bit different. Being a Christian within Ulster, I’m always conscious that I have a responsibility to be a role model. It’s the same for all of us.

“But Andrew Trimble is really good and told me you can’t please everyone. For young guys like me and Nevin (Spence), we’re lucky with the support network we’ve got here amongst the Christian players.”

McAllister is an engaging 22-year-old who spends his spare time working in Belfast Zoo, building on a love of animals that was fostered in Africa.

He speaks easily and fluently about his Christianity that has been inspired by his parents’ example in sharing their faith in hostile environments. In his short career, he has received injuries and disappointments like every other player in the Ulster squad, and credits his faith with helping him survive in professional rugby.

“I’m just happy I’ve got my Christianity, because professional rugby can be a tough place at times. The first lesson I learnt was that there was always going to be disappointments. But I’m not sure how to describe it, I’m not the most book smart of individuals at times, but I have this calmness I get with dealing with things.

“My Christianity doesn’t mean I’m soft or I’ll lose my competitive edge, give me a Christian rugby player who says he hasn’t thrown a punch and I’ll tell you he’s probably lying, it just means I feel I can deal with anything thrown at me.”

His close friend Nevin Spence is fresh from a routine visit to the physio. At 21, he has experienced the thrill of starting in the centre regularly last season for his boyhood team and the subsequent comedown of warming the bench sporadically this season.

He is extremely friendly and proud of his Christian background, but doesn’t want this admission of faith to get him special treatment.

“Listen, I’m making as many mistakes as you or anybody in the street, I suppose I just have to hold up my hands about it. I’m not perfect, I don’t want to be put on a pedestal as I know my own limitations.”

Like his team-mates, Spence grew up in a Christian home, but at school started to challenge the faith he had been brought up in.

“I don’t think it’s too unusual. I suppose I went off the rails, I don’t mean I was into drugs or anything like that, but I turned my back on Christianity, but something was always pulling me back.”

Spence still lives in rural Northern Ireland, in a small town where he goes to church twice a week and everybody knows his background. Yet, he is unwilling to give talks just yet.

He stresses that this isn’t due to shame, but simply because he is still learning a lot about his faith himself. Spence never believed he could be a professional rugby player until late in school, and is delighted that he can be a Christian in his chosen profession.

“The Ulster team is a great place to be a Christian. It’s funny, Paul Marshall and I would help each other at training, if we catch each other swearing or whatever, it’s just good to know we’re looking out for each other.

“There’s a group of 30 lads here, and the banter won’t change amongst us, nor would I want it to. There’s no divide amongst the Christians and the non-Christians. For me the Bible is about actions speaking louder than words. I’ve just got to be careful my Mum doesn’t catch me swearing on TV again.”

In a country where religion has been the cause rather than the solution for many problems, this special group of Ulster rugby players are determined to keep using their own brand of muscular Christianity at Ravenhill as long as their careers endure.