Magners League: Ulster ready to Boks clever
With Ireland’s four-match Guinness autumn international programme kicking off in under a fortnight, Ulster are likely to find themselves minus their five players named in Declan Kidney’s squad for the duration of that November series.
As from now Rory Best, Tom Court, Stephen Ferris, Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble are unavailable.
Step up five South Africans on whose broad shoulders will rest much of the responsibility for Ulster’s well-being next month.
BJ Botha and Robbie Diack were already firmly established as Ulster players when Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenburg and Ruan Pienaar arrived to add their considerable experience and know-how to the mix.
Now, in the wake of two successive defeats, coach Brian McLaughlin will be hoping his big names from the southern hemisphere are able to play a key role in guiding Ulster back to the victory trail against Munster at Ravenhill on Friday night and in away trips to Cardiff and Treviso on November 21 and 26.
Friday night will be the first inter-pro for Muller and Pienaar.
And although Wannenburg played against Connacht in Galway on September 25, he has never run out at a packed Ravenhill to play in an all-Irish derby.
Normally when Ulster and Munster go head to head it attracts one of the biggest crowds of the season.
When last they squared up in Belfast, 11,800 were at Ravenhill. Over 23,000 had watched them at Thomond Park a little over two months earlier.
Back row star Wannenburg, whose aggression and enthusiasm already have endeared him to the Ulster supporters, loves these big occasions. Certainly the 20-times capped Bok is no stranger to those, having played 100 games for Vodacom Bulls with whom he won three Super 14 titles and five Currie Cups. “I love rugby so I look forward to every single game. But the big ones are special,” Wannenburg says. “Confidence is so important though, and I think we need to get that back.
“We have good players and I think there is enough experience for us to be able to play on our terms.”
Fellow-Bok Muller, whose 22 Test appearances include having captained South Africa, will step up while hooker Best is away.
“I have always enjoyed captaincy and leadership role, but the captain only leads out the team.
“You need six or seven strong personalities around you to be a really successful team,” Muller reckons.
“We have a great captain in Rory so if I can just help out — maybe now and then just put in my half-cent — that would be fantastic.”
And the big lock — the Ulster Rugby Supporters Club Player of the Month in September — is as committed to his role here as when he led the Springboks.
“I had a wonderful stint with the Boks and really enjoyed it. But now I am here and I have a new challenge.”