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Dublin: 8°C Saturday 15 May 2021

Muller taking on harsh lessons as Ulster gain foothold at the top

At this level of competition one result is enough to scupper a season’s worth of plans.

ULSTER ARE LEARNING lessons the hard way.

They have toiled away as a second tier European side for long enough. 13 tortuous years separated their Heineken Cup final appearances; and after the 1999 success they had to wait until 2011 for progression from the pool stage.

These days, after reaching the quarter-finals in three successive years they can lay claim to being one of Europe’s top eight sides.

It’s not long ago when they relied almost exclusively on Ravenhill results. Now, they can pack up their performance and take it on the road.

image©INPHO/Chris Fairweather

Johann Muller has played a big part in raising the expectations in the province, and spreading the popularity of the north Belfast-based side throughout the nine counties.

The Springbok World Cup-winner pondering how much longer his body can cope with the rigours of the game. However, should he swap back Belfast for Buffelsfontein next summer; he will leave the baton in the hands of Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall and Stuart Olding. This is a young crop of players who, Muller says, have not only surfed the rising tide, but played a big part in reinvigorating the province.

“Yes, they come into a squad that is growing and successful, but these guys coming through the ranks are all guys that have contributed a huge amount to our success over the past couple of seasons.

“It’s great credit to our academy. Bringing all these guys through and showing that they can play international level is great testament of the quality of the work that has gone on there.”

Muller is too polite to do anything other than deflect the praise. He calls his team a side without stars, but along with his fellow South Africans and exceptional Irish internationals he has brought Ulster to a level where they can take to this campaign with an attitude that they must, rather than might,  escape the group.

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That job starts at home to Leicester on Friday night.  Things have changed since the 2012 demolition of the Tigers, not least the management.

“No, he’s not a guy that wants to share too much,” Muller says with ex-Leicester, now Leinster coach Matt O’Connor doing the rounds at the Heineken Cup launch last week. Muller though, doesn’t need much help assessing the threat.

“Ugh, I tell you what – there’s a reason they’re Premiership Champions. We obviously played them in a warm-up game in pre-season and got a proper hiding. With reason, they’re a great squad and a great team.”

Two words keep popping up when Ulster players and staff are asked to look forward to this season. ‘Confidence’ is the first and if Mark Anscombe feared it was lacking then Friday’s 18 unanswered points in the away over the Ospreys might let him sleep a little better this week.

‘Luck’ is the other keyword. Not in the sense of having a bouncing ball pop into your arms, but in somehow keeping all of their leading lights fit for the big games.

At this level, one result can turn a season off it’s course. After the early headrush of 13 consecutive wins last year, Muller was forced out for his second injury lay-off after the bonus-point win in Northampton. A week later, the Saints won at Ravenhill and Ulster lost Tommy Bowe to a horrible jarring of his knee. It was a tough performance to take at the time, and the South African lock still can’t quite shake the memory, the what-ifs.

image©INPHO/Presseye/William Cherry

“After doing so, so well – probably one of our best games of the season  – having everything go your way and then a real disappointing display at Ravenhill, that basically cost us a home quarter-final.  Then we had to go away to a real quality side in Saracens and they stopped our competition right there.

True believer

“There’s no [room for] slip-ups in this game, especially in the Heineken Cup pool stages. One point here or there can make the difference between getting out of your pool and into home quarter or semi-finals.”

He adds: “There are 10-12 teams who can win this tournament – as long as we put ourselves in a position where we can compete for  quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals; things will happen for us.

“I’m a true believe that you have to learn from past disappointments and we’ve had that over the past three years. With a bit of luck and a fit squad anything can happen.”

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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