ON DUSTY CRACKED soil on a large plot to the west of Mossel Bay, an Ulster rugby legend has work to do.
Johann Muller’s own little patch of the world stretches to 2,000 hectares (upwards of 4,900 acres in old money), but these are lean times to be a farmer on the southern cape.
The entire region is parched.
To the west, Cape Town officially declared disaster in May as the drought reached a longest run in 113 years. To the north, there are grave reports of farmers taking their own lives such is the all-encompassing strain.
“It’s been a very, very challenging year,” booms the irrepressible Muller in between little prayers for rain on the phone to The42 this week.
“Down here we have a winter rainfall, but winter this year skipped us completely. So we didn’t get much rain, any rain at all basically. But we’re hoping that the weather will change and we’ll get some really good rain this summer just to lift the spirits a bit.”
More than that, an opening of the skies will rejuvenate Muller’s ostrich stocks, cattle, sheep, his wheat, his barley and rapeseed, not to mention his dairy produce.
“I expected farming to be a bit relaxing, and I’d have a bit of time on my hands. But I didn’t realise it would take up all of my time.”
For four years Muller, a 2007 World Cup-winner, was a totemic figure for Ulster and their rise to the upper tiers of European competition during his time in supreme control of the line-out and pack were by no means coincidental. It remains a source of regret for Muller, and many more Ulster fans, that the exceptional 2014 Ulster team — scuppered by a red card and Saracens in Europe, Leinster and injury in the Pro12 — was unable to claim some silverware before the big ‘Bok’s boots went on the peg.
For many retired professionals, regularly scheduled exercise is a helpful bridge between one career and the next. For Muller though, now a father of three as of five months ago, gym sessions aren’t exactly easy to fit in. Not that he needs any extra exertions.
“Someone said to me the other day: ‘you’ve gotten skinny, you’ve lost quite a bit of weight.’ I said: ‘yah, look that’s real life stress.’
“Whenever you play rugby you think you have stress and you think you have a lot of things to worry about, until you meet the real life.
“I’ve always enjoyed training and I’ve always enjoyed being in shape. These days it’s just tough to find time to practice or train, but on the farm there’s a lot of physical work involved so I do get my exercise just through the daily routine working on the farm.”
Despite the trials and tribulations for the 37-year-old Springbok-turned-farmer, Muller clearly loves the life he has made for himself halfway between Mossel Bay and Albertinia.
It’s three and a half years now since Muller pulled on an Ulster jersey for the last time, yet the lock has barely been out of touch with his former work-mates around Ravenhill.
In May, he was back in Belfast to help the province send off his compatriot Ruan Pienaar. Last summer, John Best called by for a tour of the Muller ranch while his son Rory was leading Ireland’s three-Test series in South Africa.
“I’m on the texts and Skype or WhatsApp once a week with different people over there. We spent four years in Belfast and it was possibly the best four years of my career.
“We absolutely loved it. My little boy was born over there, my wife fitted in great and we really made some good friends – not just in rugby, but away from rugby and the general life we really enjoyed. I almost call South Africa my second home at this stage. Belfast’s a really special place and I loved my time over there.”
That connection, of course, means that Muller still takes a keen interest in watching Ulster and he made the eight-hour round trip to see them win a 12-try Pro14 thriller in Port Elizabeth last weekend.
That is about as close as he gets to professional rugby these days however. He does lend a hand coaching at his alma mater Oakdale Agricultural high school. He’s young, so there’s no ruling out further coaching duties in the future, but he doesn’t long to repatriate himself with the grind of being a player.
“It’s unbelievably tough work and it is stressful and the climate plays such a huge role in being successful or not successful.
“I wake up in the morning and enjoy what I do, which is fantastic. The move away from professional rugby to real life, a lot of people do struggle with it and miss the rugby setup. But for me, I don’t miss the rugby, I don’t miss being battered and bruised every Sunday morning and struggling to get out of bed.
“Especially if I look at the boys these days. They’re getting bigger and stronger every year. If I look at some of these players’ weights, I’m really happy I don’t have to tackle a 115 kilo second row or front row. Delighted I can sit on the couch in front of the TV and just watch them play.”
A man that certainly fits that ominous description is Iain Henderson, who wears the number 4 jersey Muller wore with such distinction for the Sharks, Ulster and the ‘Boks when he starts for Ireland in today’s opening November Test against South Africa in the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 17.30).
Henderson studied diligently under Muller and was already an international when the mentoring figure retired at the age of 33, but Henderson often spoke openly about the expert line-out coaching and leadership advice the Springbok passed down.
Now of course, the 25-year-old is a clear first-choice in Ireland’s engine room, he has captained Ulster and showed his quality in full force as a Lion.
“Without a doubt,” the Mossel Bay man responds when asked if he feels any pride at Henderson’s list of achievements.
“When I started off there he was still in the academy. He was a big lump!
“He had huge potential, but I don’t think he realised how good he can be. It was almost his second and third year when he really realised he was a phenomenal rugby player.
“He is a real talent. He’s strong, he’s a great ball carrier, great hands. It’s phenomenal to see him play as well as he is.
“With more of a leadership role in Ulster I think he’s becoming a more and more complete player which is brilliant to see. The leadership will complete that whole picture for him. He’s still a young man, he has seven or eight years ahead of him.
So if he can stick there and learn his trade in captaincy and leadership then there’s no reason he’s not a potential Ireland captain.”
“He was very relaxed, very laid back and early in his career he was just enjoying life. Life went on. At a stage he realised he has unbelievable potential and if he really worked hard, put in the hours then he can become a world class rugby player and that’s exactly what happened.”
Directly opposite Henderson today will be two more formidable locks in the shape of Eben Etzebeth (who Henderson spoke about earlier this week) and Lood de Jager. Outside of that partnership and the brilliant hooker Malcolm Marx, Muller isn’t quite as enthusiastic about the quality in his nation’s ranks.
“I think there have been positives to take out of this current season. Last year was horrible, there’s no better word to describe it,” Muller says, with the loping friendly voice turning much firmer.
“It was unbelievably sad to see and it was tough to take almost becoming the laughing stock of world rugby. South Africa is a proud rugby nation and that really hurts.
“This year there has been a definite improvement. The series against the French was positive, but they’re never great away from home so you can’t read too much into that.
“In the (Rugby) Championship at times we played really well and at times we were really poor. Getting an absolute hiding from the All Blacks in Albany, bouncing back in Cape Town and to be honest I think we should have won that game.
“That was a real positive, but we’ve got to be careful saying after one game ‘we’re all back.’ We’ve got to be careful.”
The month ahead is pivotal on a couple of fronts for South Africa then.
Off the field, where their bid for RWC 2023 will be put to a World Rugby council vote against Ireland’s and France’s offerings on Wednesday. But Muller is focused on what’s ahead of Allister Coetzee and his players on pitches in Ireland, France, Italy and Wales on consecutive weekends.
By the second week of December, incoming director Rassie Erasmus will have a crystal clear picture of what his job will entail.
“This tour is going to be a very interesting one and will decide if we’re in real trouble or if we’re still competing at the top level.
“This next month for me, will say a lot about the current squad and the players. There are some really good players and some players who are borderline not good enough to play international rugby.
“That’s my personal view and a lot of people might disagree with me. But at the end of this month we’ll have a good idea if we’re good enough or if we’re going to be in quite a bit of trouble for quite a bit of time.”
15. Rob Kearney (Leinster)
14. Andrew Conway (Munster)
13. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster)
12. Bundee Aki (Connacht)
11. Jacob Stockdale (Ulster)
10. Johnny Sexton (Leinster)
9. Conor Murray (Munster)
1. Cian Healy (Leinster)
2. Rory Best Capt (Ulster)
3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster)
4. Iain Henderson (Ulster)
5. Devin Toner (Leinster)
6. Peter O’Mahony (Munster)
7. Sean O’Brien (Leinster)
8. CJ Stander (Munster)
16. Rob Herring (Ulster)
17. Dave Kilcoyne (Munster)
18. John Ryan (Munster)
19. James Ryan (Leinster)
20. Rhys Ruddock (Leinster)
21. Kieran Marmion (Connacht)
22. Joey Carbery (Leinster)
23. Darren Sweetnam (Munster)
15. Andries Coetzee (Lions)
14. Dillyn Leyds (Stormers)
13. Jesse Kriel (Bulls)
12. Damian de Allende (Stormers)
11. Courtnall Skosan (Lions)
10. Elton Jantjies(Lions)
9. Ross Cronje (Lions)
1. Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks)
2. Malcolm Marx (Lions)
3. Coenie Oosthuizen (Sharks)
4. Eben Etzebeth Capt. (Stormers)
5. Lood de Jager (Bulls)
6. Siya Kolisi (Stormers)
7. Pieter-Steph du Toit (Stormers)
8. Francois Louw (Bath)
16. Bongi Mbonambi (Stormers)
17. Steven Kitshoff (Stormers)
18. Wilco Louw (Stormers)
19. Franco Mostert (Lions)
20. Uzair Cassiem (Cheetahs)
21. Rudy Paige (Bulls)
22. Handré Pollard (Bulls)
23. Francois Venter (Cheetahs)
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