Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Ulster will get it right this time, says Muller

Johan Muller will lead Ulster out at the RDS
Johan Muller will lead Ulster out at the RDS

There's a knowing smile on Johann Muller's face when mention is made of Toulon's comeback win in last weekend's Heineken Cup final.

After all, two of Muller's former Springbok colleagues have now bagged winners' medals to add European success to the extensive collections both Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw gleaned from their years of playing back home.

Even though the Ulster skipper has been around these parts longer than his two now even more decorated South African contemporaries, he has, of course, yet to add anything glittering to his sideboard in east Belfast.

"With the squad they (Toulon) have they should win things and they did," is the second row's rather brisk reaction to being reminded of what Botha and Rossouw have achieved and the fact that this Ulster squad have still to make the transition from trophy bidders to winners.

"For a squad like ours it's been a process and for a couple of seasons now we've been trying to build.

"But it all comes down to this (today's RaboDirect PRO12 final against Leinster at the RDS) so you couldn't ask for a better opportunity and of course it's all about one thing, winning the silverware."

Indeed, except that, yet again, it just happens to be Leinster who are providing the opposition.

You recall Muller last May, in the aftermath of the tanking Ulster had taken from Leinster in the Heineken Cup final, speaking about the fact that Joe Schmidt's side were simply too good and that there had been little any opposition could have done to live with the southern province that day.

Funnily enough, Muller isn't to be found trumpeting a likely repeat of that outcome now even though Leinster have already captured the Amlin Challenge Cup with a typically attacking-orientated display last week which, he concedes, is testament to their undoubted talents.

"They've got a quality side and have just won the Amlin and they've six Lions players in the squad so there's no secret to it, they are a brilliant rugby side.

"But look," he states referring to the experience of last May's European final, "Twelve months in rugby is a very long time and I think that as a squad we've grown quite a bit.

"The experience is now there, the hunger is there, the ability is there and so is the quality," the 32-year-old Southern Cape native says with some conviction.

Though all of the above could also easily be applied to their opponents, Ulster's belief ahead of the RDS showdown has been built upon rather more solid-looking foundations than usual with added reinforcement through having Tommy Bowe and Jared Payne bringing greater cutting edge than 12 months ago.

Getting the better of Leinster twice in the regular PRO12 season has been of notable importance with last March's backs-to-the-wall effort to win for the first time in Dublin for 14 years hailed as a seminal moment in what was then a stuttering league campaign.

"To achieve that was something special," agrees Muller before quickly moving to avoid tripping up with a few potentially tactless words over a game that ended in some confusion when referee George Clancy went to the TMO for Leinster after he had blown the final whistle.

"But having said that, we know if we go down to the RDS and if we're not 10-15 per cent better than the last time we played them in the round-robin we just won't achieve the result we want.

"In big games like this you get maybe two or three opportunities and if you don't take these opportunities then you're not going to win.

"That's where they've been so impressive over the last few seasons. Nearly every time they get an opportunity they get their seven points," he says.

And that's the worry for Ulster, as though they have been winning, their consistency of performance throughout recent games has tended to ebb and flow and this tendency, if repeated, will be ruthlessly exposed by a high-achieving Leinster side focused on a European and PRO12 double.

"Sometimes the accuracy hasn't been there," admits Muller whose third season here has been interrupted by injuries and has already been somewhat deflated by the disappointing European quarter-final exit to Saracens.

But there is still a chance to capture a trophy to bring some return on Ulster's investment, ending the seven years since the last title was secured while also avenging the 2011 RDS knockout encounter between the sides which saw Ulster go down in the then Magners League semi-final.

It has, of course, been a traumatic season and the devastating loss of Nevin Spence, along with his brother Graham and father Noel, will, as always, be on the players' minds come the game, though Muller downplays it when asked if this will be of any greater significance come the final.

"He (Nevin) hasn't left our thoughts since September so there is nothing that will change for us as a team.

"There's a reason why we have his initials on our shirt and it will be exactly the same on Saturday where once again we can realise how fortunate we are to play this game and enjoy life and to do what we love," he says before returning to on-field matters.

"If we don't win on Saturday the season will be a massive disappointment for us," admits Muller who recently signed on for one more year up until summer 2014 and is doubtless feeling that his time to achieve notable success here is probably running out.

"So for us all there's one objective and that's to win silverware. If not it's a disappointing season, end of story."

He adds: "But look, we're going out there to win and to show something for all our efforts over the last couple of seasons.

"We'll have to be absolutely brilliant if we want to beat them and anything less than that won't be good enough."

The captain has spoken.

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