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'It turned out to be the best four years of my career by a country mile'

Johann Muller says David Humphreys played a huge role in making his time in Ulster such a happy one.

THE ULSTER CONNECTION remains strong, even if Johann Muller is back on the farm in Mossel Bay in South Africa and David Humphreys is now with Gloucester in the UK.

The northern province’s former captain and director of rugby speak on a weekly basis, maintaining the friendship they built up during four years working together in Belfast.

39-year-old Muller retired from rugby when he departed Ulster in 2014, declining a two-year contract extension offer and the possibility of moving into coaching as he turned instead to his long-term plan of moving back to the family farm.

johann-muller-after-the-game Muller after his last Ulster appearance in 2014. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Former second row Muller played for the Sharks over 150 times and captained them for five years, while he won 24 caps for the Springboks and was part of the 2007 World Cup-winning squad, but he has no doubt that his spell in Ulster was the happiest of his career.

Humphreys played an integral role in Muller connecting so strongly with the province, to the point that he is revered among the Kingspan Stadium faithful.

What had started out as something of a punt on a strong contract offer back in 2010 ended up being a joy for Muller and his family.

“When I signed, I have to be totally honest, I didn’t know anything about Belfast or Northern Ireland,” says Muller. “Maybe that was a good thing!

“I said to my wife, ‘Listen, we’ve got a two-year contract and it doesn’t matter how bad it is, even if the weather is terrible and the people aren’t nice, it’s only two years and then we can come back home.’

“After the first two weeks, we were having dinner one night, so I said to her, ‘And?’

“She just said, ‘I’m absolutely loving it.’ Never for one second did we think we didn’t like it.

“It turned out to be the best four years of my career by a country mile. We absolutely loved it, my wife loved it. If I told my wife right now that we’re flying back to Northern Ireland tomorrow, she’d start to pack straight away.

“The friends we made are friends for life and that’s the thing that stood out. Yes, the rugby was good but it wasn’t really all about the rugby, it was about life away from rugby – the time we spent with people right across Northern Ireland.

“The people embraced us as one of them. We were basically Ulster people, the feeling was mutual from both sides.”

lewis-stevenson-celebrates-with-johann-muller-at-the-final-whistle Muller celebrates the 2012 Heineken Cup semi-final win. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Humphreys, who also left Ulster in 2014 to take up his Gloucester role, was key to everything behind the scenes.

The former Ireland out-half made life much easier for imports like Muller, Ruan Pienaar, Robbie Diack, Rob Herring, John Afoa, and others, helping them to feel at home.

“I always say that a happy player is a good player,” explains Muller. “David was phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal. He had an unbelievable influence on me. He made sure everyone was happy, he created that happy environment.

“I honestly believe that rugby still gets it wrong every now and then with just a head coach. Football has a better wording with ‘managers’ because they have to manage the side, manage every different individual.

“It takes a really good manager to get the best out of each individual. You can get good coaches, specialists in the lineout and defence, but to manage people is the difficult part. David had a huge influence and that made us, in a way, successful because everyone was happy and wanted to be there.”

Central to that was ensuring that the homegrown and imported players’ loved ones were doing well.

“David knew that if the family was happy, the players would be happy,” says Muller. “He created special things for the wives and kids and made sure they were happy. Taking us out for dinner, coming to ours for dinner, spending time with our family.

“If your wife if sitting at home all day, has no one to speak to, and you get home after a long day of training, that’s not fun for her.

“David cared for the people, asking how things were back home in South Africa. If you needed it, he’d give you a few days to fly back and visit. He understood real-life things, it wasn’t just about sport or money for him, it was about creating that family bond for us.”

While life off the pitch was great, Ulster made progress on it too – reaching the 2012 Heineken Cup final, the 2013 Pro12 final, and two other semi-finals in the league.

sean-obrien-and-johann-muller-after-the-game Leinster blocked Ulster's path to a trophy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Frustratingly, Leinster beat them in all four of those ties. Muller left without a medal.

“That’s the thing that still keeps me up at night,” he says. “We had such a good team, such a lovely set-up, the backroom team, everything was fantastic but the thing that keeps me up is that we didn’t get over the line.

“We got so close so many times and if it wasn’t for Leinster, we probably would have won a couple of trophies. They had a phenomenal team and a wonderful coach.”

Having long been a leader, Muller was delighted to take on the captaincy in Ulster, relishing the opportunity to work closely with different personalities, figuring out what might bring out the best in each of them. For him, character means more than ability.

“I loved that responsibility. I had great people around me; look at Rory Best, the likes of Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson, Andrew Trimble, Paddy Wallace – there were so many good leaders and that group had a lot of knowledge and experience to draw from.” 

Muller thought long and hard about Ulster’s extension offer in 2014 but knew it was time to finish up, even if he physically could have played on. There’s gratitude there in not having been forced out of the game through injury or being dumped by a club.

His body still aches sometimes now but his hectic work on the farm keeps him active. He’s the seventh generation of Mullers to work this land, with the planting season for crops of barley, wheat, hops, and rapeseed having started three weeks ago.

His two daughters and one Belfast-born son have the perfect climate and surroundings for their burgeoning love of sport. While Muller has helped out with rugby at his old school, Oakdale Agricultural College, he simply doesn’t have time to go into coaching more regularly.

Back where it all began, Muller has been able to reflect on spending most of his life absorbed in rugby.

His primary school, Buffelsfontein, close to the farm, had just 50 students so they could only play 7s rugby. Muller was 14 by the time he played his first 15-a-side game.

rugby-union-prince-william-cup-wales-v-south-africa-millennium-stadium Muller won 24 caps for the Boks. Source: EMPICS Sport

Oakdale weren’t very fancied but had a good team in his time, even if it looked like Muller would be ignored for a professional contract after leaving school. But he managed to get onto the South Africa U19s and the Sharks came calling thereafter, allowing him to work up towards his Boks debut in 2006.

He played four times off the bench in the 2007 World Cup, featured against the Lions in 2009, captained his country, and also travelled to the 2011 World Cup, making his final two Boks appearances there. He would certainly have won many more caps but for being of the same era as Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield.

The happy times at Ulster were the perfect way to round out Muller’s career.

“I said to a good friend of mine yesterday, ‘I didn’t go to university, I’m not a qualified man in any form but rugby taught me everything about life – about business, about family, about finances, about good times and bad times.’

“There is no better university than sport. Things go really well and you’ve got to handle that, not thinking too much of yourself or that you’re untouchable. Things go bad and you’ve got to do the same, work hard and get better.

“Real-life is the same. If you put in the work, you’ll get the results.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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