Defiant Muller: Ulster will rise to occasion
One match into the 2013-14 season and already Ulster are feeling the heat.
Friday night's non-descript performance against the Dragons in Newport, where they went down 15-8, means they have put themselves under a little pressure going into this Friday's Ravenhill date with Glasgow Warriors.
Last season Ulster avoided defeat in the RaboDirect PRO12 series up until round 12.
In a remarkable first-half-of-season charge, Mark Anscombe's side won the first 11 of their PRO12 matches before finally going down 24-10 to Munster in Limerick on December 29. All told, en route to top place, they lost only four of their 22 fixtures in the 2012-13 series.
But that weekend defeat by the Dragons – in tandem with bonus point wins for Leinster and Munster who beat Scarlets and Edinburgh in Llanelli and Cork respectively – serves to make this Friday night's match against Glasgow particularly important to Ulster in their fight to ensure that they figure among the early-season pace-setters.
It would be ridiculously premature to start pressing panic buttons at this stage, for note that of last season's top four, only Ulster began with a 100% record.
Leinster – the eventual winners of the 2012-13 PRO12 title – opened up with an undistinguished lost, won, won, lost sequence. Glasgow, who finished third, were beaten in each of their first two matches. Scarlets, having won their first three, lost the fourth,
Nevertheless, captain Johann Muller admitted the date with Glasgow – always tough opponents – has assumed even greater importance as a result of that defeat in Wales.
"It's going to be a tense week for all of us because all of a sudden this has become a massive game from a confidence point of view, basically. You don't want to start by losing two in a row," he said.
But he admitted that Gregor Townsend's Warriors, who beat visiting Cardiff Blues 22-15 in their opening game at Scotstoun, will pose a huge threat, not only to Ulster on Friday night in east Belfast but to all-comers throughout the season.
"We all know that Glasgow have spent a lot of money during the summer. They've got a great set-up there and Gregor has done an outstanding job with them. They have been the unlucky side, I believe, in the past two or three seasons," Muller said.
The Warriors' PRO12 record shows them to have been admirably consistent performers; they have had top four finishes three of the past four seasons.
"We are expecting a really tough game," the big South African said. "But at the end of the day it's about us and what we bring to the paddock.
"If we are as poor as we were against the Dragons it will be a very embarrassing day for us but I'm sure the boys will get up for it and make sure that we don't do what we did at Rodney Parade."
Whilst conceding that titles are neither won nor lost in the opening week, Ulster tight-head Ricky Lutton stressed the importance of getting the show on the road after the Newport horror-show.
He said: "You don't lose the league in the first week of the season, but we have a massive game against Glasgow. We're looking forward to working hard and kick-starting the season."
Pointing to the calibre of the players at Ulster's disposal, their combined know-how and the strength in depth of the pool, in stressing the positives he pointed to what they have done before when called upon to redeem a situation.
Lutton added: "There is tremendous experience and huge characters in this squad.
"We showed that last year when we hit that bit of a rut in mid-season and climbed out of it to put together that great run at the end of the season.
"Losing to the Dragons wasn't the start we wanted, but it's only one defeat.
"It's not great to have lost but at the same time we're certainly not writing ourselves off.
"We have a big game against Glasgow and we're going to go out with all guns blazing, looking to right what went wrong and get things back on the right track.
"You can't win or lose a league in the first week, so we'll just look to bounce back."