Feels like first time for Ulster captain Muller
Published 07/02/2013 | 07:00
Johann Muller returns to lead Ulster on Friday night when they host Ospreys – and he admits he will be as nervous as at any time since first enlisting with the province three years ago.
"I'm probably more nervous now than I was in my first game," the World Cup-winning lock insists. "The team has done so well without me so when you're coming back you're worried about letting the boys down.
"You need to come off knowing that you have played to the best of your ability and that you have helped the team."
Scour this province if you like, but I doubt you will find anyone with similar misgivings; the Ulster supporters will be delighted to see him back at the rudder on Friday night.
"From a personal point of view it is important that I use these next four games to get the sharpness back and build the confidence up again," he continues.
"I haven't played a lot of rugby this year and we're going into the really big stuff now so I need to be sure that when those games come around I am ready."
This will be Muller's first outing since breaking his arm in the Heineken Cup rout of Northampton Saints at Franklin's Gardens on December 7, since when he has been a frustrated spectator.
But during that time in the grandstand he has been able to study events on the pitch and he is heartened by what he has seen.
"The character in the squad and the will to fight to get the result is what stands out," he enthuses. "In some of those games we haven't played at our best, but we have managed to win.
"That real hunger to win, that willingness to fight for each other and the spirit that is within the team is something that you perhaps appreciate even more when you're watching from the stand."
But there has to be an end-product, he insists.
"Yes, we are progressing, but we haven't achieved anything yet," he says, the up-side coming when he adds: "But winning on the days when you aren't playing particularly well is something all good teams do and we have shown that we have that.
"You're not always going to play well. That's just life, that's rugby, but if you have that fight within you and you are able to dig deep to make sure you still get the result, that is vital."
He has identified areas where Ulster can do better.
"It doesn't matter how well you play; you can score 10 tries in a game, but there will always be room for improvement," he says en-route to highlighting the set-pieces and ball retention.
"It doesn't matter where you go or at what level you play, if you can't get your first phase right you're always going to struggle to win games.
"Our scrum has been outstanding and our line-out has been really good, though in the last few games we've struggled a little there. That's something we need to sort out again.
"We need to work on holding onto the ball as well.
"It's important that we do that when we're trying to build pressure because if you can go through 10 or 15 phases and create opportunities then it is going to be difficult to defend against you. But you have to hold onto the ball to do it."
And Muller is itching to play his part in assisting with that.
"Obviously I'm delighted to be back. I do believe in myself and I've got a lot of confidence in myself as a player," says the big South African, whose just-confirmed acceptance of a year-long contract extension wedding him to the province for another 17 months has delighted Ulster's management, players and supporters alike.
"It will be good to play again. It's going to be a tough couple of weeks for me, but that's just part of coming back when you have been out for a while," he adds matter-of-factly.