Magners League: Muller has a gift for making a difference
Johann Muller already is so much part of the Ulster set-up that it is hard to believe he is still in his first season.
The man who, in the absence of Rory Best, once again will captain Brian McLaughlin’s team tomorrow night against Aironi, has emerged as so central a figure in the Newforge training camp and on the Ravenhill pitch that he seems always to have been there.
He hasn’t, but from the moment he first set foot on these shores the former Springboks captain set about assimilating, adapting and adding all of what he has to offer Ulster Rugby – and that’s a lot.
There is about him a missionary-like zeal to spread the word — which in his case is ‘rugby’ — and a willingness to give wholly of himself in order to see the game itself continue to grow and its players develop as it does so.
One of the factors in his decision to join Ulster was being able to help the province’s progression. Now, nine months in, he has no doubt that Ulster are moving in the right direction, at speed.
He points to players like Paddy McAllister, Nevin Spence, Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson as providing clear proof that Ulster are nurturing home-grown, top-drawer talent.
“A lot of hard work has gone into those Academy players and hats off to everybody involved there. That’s outstanding and if you can build a squad out of your own players almost, that is wonderful,” the big South African lock enthuses.
“The guys have really put up their hands. Nevin Spence has been outstanding for us the whole season.
“Young Luke Marshall came in at the weekend and he was our man of the match. I thought he was outstanding as well.
“So it’s great to see these youngsters. Every now and then you think they’re too young to play at this level, but they get thrown in on the deep side and then they do as well as that. That is outstanding, so hats off to them and hopefully it can continue into the future and we can get some more guys coming through.”
One is struck by his use of language and the fact that he says ‘we’ rather than ‘you’ or ‘Ulster’. Clearly this is personal.
He stresses that the emergence of so many good young players serves as a constant reminder to those further along the journey of the need to fight for inclusion.
“That’s the obvious thing for any squad. If there’s competition there, that keeps everybody else on their toes and they know they need to push really hard to stay on top of their game which is exactly what you need in any squad.”
Evidently he and coach McLaughlin are singing in perfect harmony off the same lyric sheet.
“We’re very pleased with how the youngsters have played for us and that’s all credit to our Academy. The work of Johnnie Bell, the work of Gary Longwell and Niall Malone is proving very worthwhile,” McLaughlin echoes.
“We’re delighted with those guys coming through; Paddy McAllister at the start of the season, Nevin’s come through, Paddy Jackson has had a wee bit of a taster.
“From our point of view that increases the depth of our squad, which, at the end of the day, is what we’re trying to do.”