RaboDirect Pro12: Muller times Ulster return to perfection
With eight World Cup players safely back in the Ravenhill fold, Ulster and their supporters are awaiting news on two further matters of some importance.
When will All Blacks prop John Afoa be available and who is joining to replace the unfortunate Jared Payne now that the Kiwi is out for the season having ruptured his Achilles tendon?
While there should be an answer to the second of those two questions in the next few days, confirmation of Afoa’s join-up date may take a little longer.
With off-field negotiations on those issues on-going, tomorrow sees Ulster return to action for the first time since their October 7 aberration against Benetton Treviso.
Six of Ulster’s World Cup octet are available for that, one of the eight being captain Johann Muller who is ready to lead the side against Scarlets at Parc y Scarlets tomorrow afternoon (3pm).
Having been fully briefed as to what went on in his absence, the popular Springbok is fully aware of the importance of helping Ulster to kick-start their season afresh.
So, too, is coach Brian McLaughlin who must be mightily relieved to have Ruan Pienaar, Simon Danielli, Tom Court, Andrew Trimble and Paddy Wallace, in addition to Muller, at his disposal for the first time since May.
The only post-World Cup absentees are Rory Best and Stephen Ferris who, in keeping with the IRFU’s Player Management Programme, are sidelined for another week. Both are expected to play some part next Saturday when McLaughlin’s men face Connacht at Ravenhill in what will be their first inter-pro test of 2011/12.
Ulster have not fared well in the absence of their World Cup personnel; currently they are 12 points shy of RaboDirect Pro12 pace-setters, Ospreys.
If they are to equal or better last season’s achievement of having finished third, thereby qualifying for the top four play-off semi-finals, they can ill-afford too many more defeats.
Last term they lost six of their 22 Magners League fixtures. To date in the re-branded Pro12 series they have been beaten three times in their first six outings.
Understandably coach McLaughlin and captain Muller are keen to get things back on track, not least because Ulster take to the Heineken Cup stage in just two weeks when they host ASM Clermont Auvergne in their group-stage opener. Certainly they could do with banking a couple of morale-boosting wins ahead of that challenge.
Muller, his right eye swollen eye courtesy of a training ground collision with Andi Kyriacou, pronounced himself fully fit in mind and body.
Vitally, he confirmed that the others are in the mood, too.
“All of the guys who are involved this weekend are really keen to play again and hopefully do well for Ulster,” he said.
“A lot of us haven’t played a lot of rugby over the past four or five months so all of us are really excited just to get out there again. The excitement in the whole squad is fantastic and hopefully we can carry that into Saturday’s game.
“I can’t wait to get out there again. Obviously to lead the boys is a great honour.”
McLaughlin, endorsing his captain’s enthusiasm for the forthcoming fray, said: “There’s a real air of excitement about the guys and we’re really looking forward to getting over to Wales and getting back on the horse so to speak.”
But he isn’t expecting an easy ride. He knows Parc y Scarlets will be a particularly tough venue at which to launch the season’s second phase, a period described by McLaughlin as being “very important”.
“The first four games for us are massive. To go to Llanelli, then to have Connacht at home, building in Clermont and then Leicester, those are crucial for us as far as the season is concerned,” he said.
“We all know that, we’re well aware of it and we’re really looking forward to that challenge.”