Driven Muller chasing silver lining
Provided he avoids injury, Johann Muller will reach a half-century of Ulster appearances in the next few weeks.
To date the 6ft 7ins captain has played 46 matches in an Ulster jersey and with him looking and sounding as fit and fresh as when he arrived from Natal Sharks in the summer of 2010, his continuing commitment and appetite are unquestionable.
So, too, is his belief that Ulster have progressed significantly in the past couple of years. But now he wants to see them enjoy rewards which have eluded them in recent times.
As Muller reminds you, they last raised a trophy — the former Magners League — in 2006. And since, in his eyes, success is measured in terms of cups and medals accumulated, that drought must end.
His own impressive collection of career memorabilia includes a Currie Cup winners’ medal from 2008 when he captained the Sharks. And while Ulster, as a team, have not won anything in his first two seasons here, he has succeeded as an individual.
At the end of his first campaign here he walked off with the Ulster Rugby Supporters’ Club Player of the Season and the Ulster Rugby Personality of the Year awards. Quite a double.
Because he knows what is required to achieve the status of a winner, fellow-players listen when he talks. How could it be otherwise; what Ulster fledgling is going to ignore the words of a South African whose CV includes having captained the Springboks against the All Blacks?
So what is he telling Ulster’s exciting crop of young players at this stage? With the start of the new season now just over a week away, where does he see Ulster being? Essentially, that there is no easy way. No shortcut, no easy-to-apply formula. Instead it simply boils down to getting the basics right, time after time. And to approaching every game as one you desperately want to win.
“It’s about consistency,” he tells you. “Last year, when we were really hungry for victories the way we played showed that if we really wanted to win we could beat
anybody in Europe. So it’s about getting that consistency, week in and week out. That is the challenge for us. The small steps are the most important ones and they’re normally the most difficult ones, too.
“Mark (Anscombe) had come in and he has really hammered those small points. It’s all about the basics of rugby and doing those small things really well. In the pressure situations, that’s what is going to carry you through and get you the victory you need. We have been working hard on that in the pre-season.”
But he warns that success is hard-earned; it doesn’t come cheaply.
“Obviously it’s not just going to happen overnight. It’s a process, it’s something that we’ve got to keep on improving and keep on trying for the next 12 months, the next 24 months,” he added.
“Then, hopefully, we can actually achieve that goal of ours and back up a successful season with rewards.”
Muller cites the achievements of Leinster and Munster as offering examples and setting benchmarks.
“They have got trophies to show for their efforts,” he points out. “For some, success is having a good season; for others it is winning trophies.
“So even though last year was a success in a way for Ulster, we still haven’t won anything and that is something which, as a group of players, is really driving us.
“We want to be able to say at the end of the season, ‘Look, this is what all our efforts have been about’.”
And with that in mind, Muller highlights the return of Lions’ wing Tommy Bowe|(pictured) as providing clear proof of Ulster’s drawing power and potential. As he sees it, no world-class player is going to wed himself to a club without first being convinced of the ambitions there and the possibility of those being realised.
“The quality he has shown — not only for Ireland and Ulster but also the Ospreys — really excites me as a player and as a captain. To get that quality, that leadership, around me and the other players is brilliant,” Muller says with evident enthusiasm.
“I think a guy like Craig Gilroy will learn so much from him and will become an even better player than he already is. He will get so much from that.
“Whenever you get international-class players in, with the knowledge and experience that they bring, that does so much for the other guys.”