Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Ulster Rugby on path to greatness

retiring muller says province can look forward to a glorious future

Johann Muller will be hoping to have his hands on the Heineken Cup trophy
Johann Muller will be hoping to have his hands on the Heineken Cup trophy

Johann Muller is on the home straight of what has been an outstanding career as a rugby player.

If Ulster reach the finals of this season's Heineken Cup and RaboDirect PRO12 tournaments and he avoids injury, he has nine matches to go before retiring.

Worst case scenario is that there are five, though that would entail Saracens dumping Ulster out of Europe tomorrow night, followed by an improbable PRO12 implosion by the side Muller has captained since 2011/12.

He arrived in the summer of 2010, since when the good influence exerted by the 34-year-old South African – both on and off the field – has been enormous.

Ulster had not reached the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup since winning it in 1999. In Muller's first season here, they ended that depressing 12-year wait. And finally having managed to shake that monkey off their backs, they have been quarter-finalists each year since.

This is their fourth successive season as one of Europe's top eight and of this year's octet, they are the only one able to boast that; Clermont, Munster and Saracens all failed to get out of their pools in 2011, ditto Leicester Tigers in 2012 – the season in which Toulon reached the knock-out stages for the first time ever – while Leinster and Toulouse both exited early in 2013.

With no hint of self-aggrandisement, the 6ft 7in Springbok smiles on being reminded of Ulster's change of fortune since he first clocked in at Ravenhill.

As we sat in the Premium Stand overlooking a sun-kissed Ravenhill, he mused: "I hadn't thought about getting out of the pool stages four years in a row or about this being the first time we've been able to play a quarter-final here.

"It is exciting. This is obviously where you want to play – Heineken Cup quarter-final, new stadium, 4,500 more people than we're used to and a great atmosphere against a wonderful side.

"We're going to be the first team to play in this new stadium and it's the first time that we've been top after the pool stages of the Heineken Cup, so it doesn't get any bigger or better than this.

"The excitement in this group of players is just brilliant. We're all really looking forward to it."

He may be going home to Mossel Bay and back to his roots as a Southern Cape farmer, but the depth of feeling he has for the adopted Irish province he has served so well is unquestionable. And huge though tomorrow night's match is, he reminds you that it is part of something even bigger.

"It's really important that people, and us as players, realise that this has never been a one, two, three or four-year plan. Yes, of course we want to win right now; we wanted to win four years ago, three years ago, two years ago, too," he said.

"But this is a five, 10, 15, 20-year plan that is being put in place here and when you look at the facilities and at the players who are coming through and the new players joining, this is a great place to be.

"This is just the start of a very long and very successful time for Ulster Rugby.

"It is exciting to see that there is progress.

"Alright, we haven't got anything to show for it from a trophy point of view at this moment. But in terms of bricks and mortar building along with team-building towards where we want to be, it has been brilliant to be part of that phase and helping to put foundations in place for what's going to happen in the next five, 10, 15, 20 years.

"I'm just super excited and really, really fortunate to have been part of such a great place and such a great organisation. If it ends in a trophy this year, wonderful.

"And if it doesn't, still it will have been the best four years of my life.

"I have loved it and I am really proud of what we have achieved as a team."

The big lock admitted that when he looks round the changing room before leading his side out to face Saracens tomorrow night, he will be lifted by knowing he is surrounded by quality players of real character.

"That gives me a huge amount of confidence," he said.

"We have been quite a settled side in the past four years and just about all of these guys have gone through Heineken Cup wins and losses. We have all been through all of these things together so we know how much losing hurts and the joy you – and the supporters – get out of winning.

"That gives me comfort and a lot of confidence. I know how much hunger there is in this squad and I know how much we want to achieve something as a group and as an organisation. That really excites me and makes me want to play for this team.

"There's 40 others in this group who have got exactly the same goal as me and that is to win. That's the exciting thing for me.

"We have one thing we all want to get out of this season and is to go all the way. Sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn't.

"The only thing we can control is Saturday, half past six, against Saracens. That is the only thing we need to focus on."

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