Heineken Cup: Muller the man for Ulster's big occasion
Ulster captain Johann Muller was brought here to do a job and a semi-final date in the Heineken Cup proves he’s doing it very well.
Director of Rugby David Humphreys went to South Africa to persuade the man who captained the Springboks against New Zealand at Christchurch in July 2007 that Ulster were going places and they were likely to get there a lot sooner if he was involved.
Muller liked what he heard, accepted the challenge of trying to help move Ulster forward and signed on the dotted line. Neither party has had any regrets.
Exactly as Humphreys had envisaged, Ulster have an on-field leader and winner and an off-field inspiration and example.
The former Natal Sharks star arrived in the summer of 2010 and such was the impact he made that at the end of his first season he walked off with the Ulster Rugby Personality of the Year and the Supporters Club’s Player of the Year awards. Quite a double.
Not surprisingly, and very much to the supporters’ delight, his Ravenhill bosses promptly rewarded him with a contract extension which will keep him on board for another 12 months at least. Even now there are whispers that they may offer him a role beyond that.
Watch this space.
Undoubtedly Ulster have made huge progress in the two seasons he has been here.
Last year they reached the last eight of the Heineken Cup. This year they are in the semi-finals and on Saturday the 6ft 7ins second row forward will lead Ulster out at the Aviva Stadium to face Edinburgh in their first European Cup semi-final appearance since 1999. He is looking forward to the occasion and to the challenge.
“Big matches like this are why we play rugby,” he tells you.
Muller is a deeply religious man of faith. He has faith in Ulster, too, his conviction being that they have made real progress and are getting better.
“The young players really have come on,” he says. “Also the internationals — like Rory Best and Stevie Ferris, Tom Court, Paddy Wallace — have emerged more and more as leaders and that is good for everybody.
“The whole squad benefits from having guys who have played in a lot of big matches alongside others who are very good players but are less experienced. Ulster have a good balance of experience and youth.”
One of the things to which he is most looking forward on Saturday evening is experiencing the sight and sound of the Aviva Stadium where the overwhelming majority of the expected 50,000-strong crowd will be cheering for Ulster.
“Clermont was one of the best experiences of my rugby career. The amount of noise there was unbelievable and although there weren’t that many Ulster supporters that day the energy and enjoyment you get from playing in an environment and an atmosphere like that is something really special for all players,” he says.
With excitement and expectation come pressure and responsibility, of course. So are these Ulster players — none of whom have been in a Heineken Cup semi-final — equipped to cope with that? He believes they are, not least because of having met Northampton in last year’s quarter-final at Milton Keynes.
“Experience is very important,” he says. “First time out in a situation like this you get nervous and you feel the pressure of the crowd. That’s where experience comes in.
“Your team leaders have to make sure that the squad is relaxed and focused on the job ahead and not worried or thinking about anything other than what’s going to happen between the four lines.
“We all get nervous and we all get excited before big games, but it’s about channelling all that energy in the right direction so that we can perform on the field.
“We know what to expect. We were in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and the Magners semi-finals last year and we have international players who have been in World Cup games and Grand Slam games, so we have experience of this.
“It’s just about enjoying the occasion. As captain I just try to be as calm and relaxed as possible and make sure that we keep on doing the things that have been successful in the past.”