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Ulster Rugby's Johann Muller desperate to end career in Pro12 final

By Michael Sadlier

In his four years around these parts he has never had to field such a curve-ball query before – and it sure shows.

Indeed, just for a moment, the soon to retire Johann Muller is somewhat thrown as the notion that he has yet to perform a small, but nevertheless significant, task is brought to his attention.

You see, his signature is required, but this is no ordinary autograph to be scribbled on the usual programme or shirt, for the skipper is supposedly expected to make his mark on a certain wall at Ravenhill before he packs up with his wife and family and heads home some time next month to the family farm in Mossel Bay.

The wall in question is where the players now make their entry to the pitch from the recently opened stand and pass through a short tunnel area which has the motto 'Where legends are made' daubed on both sides.

"I have been asked to do that," says Muller, who is clearly taken aback by the subject being brought up.

If all goes to plan, he will leave his signature not too far away from where Brian O'Driscoll is believed to have already done so on his final visit to Ravenhill a fortnight ago.

"We'll see over the next couple of weeks where we'll go with that," is all the now somewhat embarrassed former Springbok adds at yet another reminder that his time as a player is nearly spent.

Moving on, the soon to be 34-year-old is on far firmer footing discussing yet another knockout contest against hoodoo side Leinster and there is no hiding from the fact that, with Saturday's PRO12 play-off up next, the record is anything but good when it comes to playing the current holders.

Apart from last season's PRO12 regulation season double, home and away, against the men in blue – when Muller became notably animated behind Ulster's try line after they had clung on to record their first victory in Dublin for 14 years and, for him, an initial taste of victory against them after missing the earlier Ravenhill encounter through injury – the key games against Leinster have all followed an all too familiar pattern.

The PRO12 semi-final in 2011 and last year's final – which were both played at the RDS – ended rather badly for Ulster while, in between, came the frighteningly one-sided turning over that was the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham in May 2012.

"It's funny how it seems that around this time every year we run into Leinster," states Muller, though levity is not what he has in mind when reflecting on Ulster's miserly record in the big games between the provinces.

"It's been the same old story," he adds rather wistfully, "and there's a reason why they are champions.

"They've got an unbelievable side which has achieved so much over the last five years," the second row states.

All true, yet Ulster will be travelling south propelled by a growing belief that, finally, this could be their time to come out on top. After all, Leinster struggled two weeks ago to put a 14-man Ulster away at Ravenhill and then, last weekend, just about got the better of lowly Edinburgh at the RDS to finish top of the pile ahead of the play-offs.

It just might be that all the fanfare being poured out by O'Driscoll's pending departure from the stage, along with that of fellow Leinster legend and new forwards coach Leo Cullen, could be proving to be more of a distraction than was intended, hence a chink of light for Muller and co despite his own approaching retirement which, he argues, has already been emotionally played out for him at Ravenhill when Leinster visited a fortnight ago.

Taking all that on board and closely aligning it with the magnificently resilient effort put together by a largely unfamiliar looking Ulster side to triumph at Thomond Park last Saturday and Muller, while lauding their efforts, knows that the frontline squad now just have to upset the odds themselves to show that they can replicate that eye-catching achievement against a close to full strength Munster.

"I don't think there are a lot of people who will put money on us and sometimes that's a great position to be in," maintains Muller.

"So, we've just got to out there and leave everything on the park.

"That's all we can do. The only thing we don't want to do is come back here thinking 'we should have done this or we should have done that.'

"We've got to give it everything and if we hit our stride then anything is possible," says the skipper before adding, "they're (Leinster) obviously going to play with a huge amount of emotion as they're in the process of saying goodbye to Brian (O'Driscoll) and Leo (Cullen)."

As for his own reflections at what will be his last ever game should Ulster lose, the World Cup winning second row dismisses any notion that his approach is in any way being diluted.

"My only focus now is to play well and hopefully get the result that we want," he says before hitting a more direct theme.

"If we lose it, it's done for us. There are no second chances. No second chances now," is Muller's mantra

He definitely wants to make his mark, but the wall can wait as this player badly wants another final before the curtain falls.

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