Heineken Cup: Ulster clash against Benetton Treviso at Ravenhill start of 'make or break' run of games
Johann Muller: 7-week make or break starts now
Tonight's Heineken Cup clash with Benetton Treviso at sold-out Ravenhill (6.00pm) marks the start of a run of games that could make or break Ulster's season.
That's the opinion of fit-again captain Johann Muller who says Ulster's chances of silverware next May depend on how they fare in the next seven weeks.
"The next seven weeks will define our season if we're to get out of our Heineken Cup pool and stay in the top four of the PRO12," the South African said.
"Because of injuries, a lot of guys have got to play a lot of rugby now in what are big games and the body takes a bit of a beating and bruising."
Tonight's meeting is followed by a Heineken Cup return in Italy a week today; PRO 12 dates with Zebre at Ravenhill (December 20), Leinster at the RDS (Boxing Day), Munster in Belfast (January 3) and the completion of the European pool, away to Leicester and home to Montpellier.
Johann Muller hungry for success
Forget the fact that he is 33 and has a CV that includes captaining the Springboks against the All Blacks in what unquestionably is the biggest match-up in world rugby; the prospect of squaring up to Benetton Treviso tonight in the first of two back-to-back Heineken Cup dates still excites him.
There was no attempt to play down his enthusiasm when he said: "I've been off now for four or five weeks and I'm hungry for rugby again.
"As long as I can play well and keep contributing to the team and leading them well I will be happy."
Cue a question on his future. His contract expires at the end of the season and unlike fellow-South African and close friend Ruan Pienaar, at this stage Muller has not committed himself to anything beyond that.
"I don't know yet," he insisted when asked a direct question as to his plans.
Elaborating he continued: "I said at the beginning of the season that I was not going to do what I did last year when I signed a contract for this year and then I picked up five, six big injuries in a row.
"Myself and David (Humphreys, Ulster's Director of Rugby) have got a really good understanding that I'm going to listen to my body this season.
"If, when January-February comes, I'm feeling good and the injuries have stayed away, then we'll talk again. But at this stage I just want to enjoy my rugby and hopefully keep fit. Time will teach and time will tell in the next couple of months. That's when I'll make a decision."
In the interim, Ulster face a lot of important matches, beginning tonight.
Muller is anticipating a bruising battle courtesy of Treviso.
Assessing the Italians, Muller expressed his admiration when he said: "They have a big forward pack, a really dominant set-piece, they're really physical and then they have the likes of Brendan Williams at the back who can score tries from 100 metres away.
"They're also a side who have come here in the past two seasons and got really good results. They beat us here two years ago and last year I thought they were unlucky to draw when we got that kick (Paddy Jackson's conversion of the second of Michael Allen's two tries) in the last minute.
"They're a team who have done really well at Ravenhill and they'll be full of confidence coming here. They'll be expecting to get a result," the 6ft 7ins lock said.
"We've got one or two guys back, but we're still missing the likes of Rory Best, Nick Williams, Chris Henry, Iain Henderson and Lewis Stevenson – and that's only in our pack of forwards. If you take five world-class players out of any team you're probably going to be a bit thin.
"But in saying that, we've been able to build a squad over the last two or three years and now all of a sudden we have players who can step into those positions and perform really well in the Heineken Cup."
However, Muller admitted to some concern about the weight of responsibility placed on certain players as a result of Ulster's unfortunate run of injuries.
"The likes of Roger Wilson and Robbie Diack have been outstanding this season; they have played some magnificent rugby," he said. "But the workload on them is getting really tough with them having to play week in and week out because of injuries to other guys.
"In saying that, this is Europe, these are two massive back-to-back games and the first of them is at home so you get up for those types of challenges. Hopefully everybody can stand up and be counted for the next few weeks."
Echoing the words of coach Mark Anscombe, Ulster's captain pointed to the importance of the run of games from now until mid-January.
"The next seven weeks will define our season if we're to get out of our (Heineken Cup) pool and stay in the top four of the Rabo (Direct PRO12)," Muller said.
"Because of the injuries, a lot of guys have got to play a lot of rugby now in what are big games and the body takes a bit of a beating and bruising.
"But it's a really big push forward and if we can play some really good rugby and keep fit as a squad there is no reason why we can't have a really good seven weeks.
"For sure it's going to test us as individuals, as a squad, from a coaching point of view and from a playing point of view as well. But if you want to be the best in any competition, that's what you want – you want to be tested and you want to play against the best."
Leadership by example? Take that as a given.
Return of key Ulster stars will prove to be a timely boost for Anscombe
By Michael Sadlier
With injury having robbed him of forwards Rory Best, Chris Henry, Nick Williams, Iain Henderson and Lewis Stevenson, Ulster coach Mark Anscombe was relieved to be able to include a trio of marquee players for tonight's all-important Heineken Cup Pool 5 clash with Benetton Treviso at Ravenhill (6pm).
Fit-again captain Johann Muller lines out for the first time since October 25 when he injured a calf. With Henderson and Stevenson now out, the big South African's return could not be more timely.
And fellow-countryman Ruan Pienaar's inclusion immediately behind the pack of forwards of whom Muller will be a key member gives Anscombe and Ulster another boost. The availability of a 74-times capped Springbok whose box-kicking is arguably the best of any scrum-half in the world right now is a big shot in the arm.
Having been on autumn international duty with South Africa, tonight is Pienaar's first outing in an white shirt since October 25. His partner is Paddy Jackson for whom this will be a 50th Ulster appearance – a remarkable milestone for a 21-year-old.
The third piece in the Anscombe jigsaw sees Jared Payne return for what will be his first match since picking up a groin injury against Scarlets five weeks ago. There was a scare at the start of the week when the soon-to-be-Irish-qualified New Zealander suffered a further setback during Monday's training session.
On Tuesday, Anscombe revealed: "He's a 50-50. He aggravated it again yesterday so we'll just have to see how he goes. We're hopeful, but if it's not right we won't risk him."
Payne's inclusion suggests Ulster are happy he has recovered sufficiently to merit having named him at full-back, though one wonders what the back-line line-up would have been but for Tommy Bowe's latest injury problem? I suspect Craig Gilroy would have worn 15, with Bowe and Andrew Trimble the wings and Payne in midfield alongside Luke Marshall.
As it is, the only other change to the side which returned victorious from Parma last weekend sees Sean Doyle and Mike McComish swap jerseys, with the former starting at seven and the latter taking his place on the bench.
With Ulster expected to win, Anscombe urged caution ahead of tonight's test. Clearly he is taking nothing for granted. Nothing, he stressed, is ever achieved without work to merit it.
"In this game the day you start expecting things just to happen for you is the day you fail," he warned.
"Treviso are a team full of internationals and the one thing international players do is pride themselves on their own performance. So you're not going to get internationals coming here to allow us to ride roughshod all over them and dominate. They're going to have pride in their performance."
And expressing his admiration for his Treviso counterpart, Anscombe added: "I've a lot of respect for Francis Smith, I think he done a great job. He's leaving there, remember, and he doesn't want to go not having finished off the great work that he's done.
"So he'll be working just as hard as he does any other week to get the performance that he's looking for. I'm expecting one tough evening at Ravenhill."
Although Ulster were 19-11 winners against the other Italian franchise, Zebre, a week ago in a PRO12 game, Anscombe was highly critical of his team's 'passive' defending. That, he stressed, stemmed from not having had the right attitude. He does not anticipate any repetition tonight.
"I think it's maybe harder to get up for those games than for the Heineken Cup," he said. "The Heineken Cup brings an air of excitement, not only to the public but to the players as well.
"The players like playing in Europe. If they don't play international rugby, it's the highest level they get to. World rugby sits back, turns the tele on and watches European rugby weekends, so it's exciting and players like to be part of that.
"Ravenhill is a sell-out once again, we've got a good track record here and we like playing at home, so it's exciting."