Heineken Cup: Ulster just a work in progress, says Muller
Johann Muller is a colossus of a man — 6ft 7ins, 17st 8lbs of prime South African beef. His standards and objectives are in keeping with his massive physique, witness the fact that his huge feet are firmly planted on the ground despite the fact that Ulster are in their first Heineken Cup quarter-final for 12 years.
Northampton Saints? A la Muller, another rung on the ladder. Nothing more, nothing less than that so let’s maintain a sense of perspective, lads.
Thankfully he is not alone in feeling that way, for whilst they are happy with their obvious progress to date, no-one in the Ulster camp is resting on any laurels. It’s not a finished project; it’s a work in progress.
Muller is keen to stress the point. Over and over again.
“I’ve said it from the beginning of the season that we’re a team who aren’t where we want to be yet. Even though we’ve made a quarter-final and we’re second in the Magners League we’re still not achieving as much as we can,” he says.
“But that will come and it will come with time. You don’t become a great team overnight, it takes a little bit of time.
“But we’ve taken the first couple of steps to where we want to go and obviously this weekend is another massive step for us.
“If we can get over this hurdle that will obviously turn this team into a much better one than it is right now.”
The former captain of the Springboks has adapted so quickly and fully to life in Ulster that no-one has needed to waste time explaining to him what inclusion in the last eight of the Heineken Cup means to people here. He knows; he gets it.
So too, do his fellow-countrymen BJ Botha, Pedrie Wannenburg and Ruan Pienaar who have been mainstays in Ulster’s march to the quarter-finals.
In addition, World Cup-winner Pienaar’s goal-kicking has been a key ingredient in Ulster’s run of six successive Magners League wins which sees them head for Milton Keynes and Sunday’s date with Northampton in a quietly confident frame of mind.
“I don’t need to say anything about Ruan,” Muller smiles. “He has shown over the last couple of weeks and months the quality player he is and the ability he has to kick under pressure is wonderful to see.
“But not only him; Humph (Ian Humphreys), before he got injured, was absolutely outstanding in the kicking department so that’s one thing we’re quite confident of — we have two world-class kickers and we’re obviously excited about that.”
His assessment of Humphreys’ influence is spot-on. As per the tournament organiser’s Amlin opta stats system, he comes out as the ninth best player in the 2010/11 Heineken Cup thus far.
All facets of play — attack, defence and kicking — are considered so while Humphreys’ tally of 64 points is four fewer than Steve Myler’s haul, the Northampton goal ace is ranked only 32nd. First blood to Ulster.
Turning his attention to Botha, who will be leaving Ulster at the end of the season, Muller underlines what the tighthead’s scrummaging contributes to the cause. Having been sidelined by an elbow injury which required surgery, Botha made a timely return last Friday night when he played for an hour against Scarlets.
“He made a huge impact scrumming-wise. He’s a brilliant scrummager, probably one of the best in the world, so it’s a huge bonus for us. He’s a quality player and I’m just happy that he got 60 minutes under the belt last weekend.
“Hopefully he can step it up even more on Sunday. Northampton have a brilliant scrum and a brilliant line-out so we’re going to need players of world class if we’re going to compete in those departments,” Muller reckons.
“They actually base their play around their first phase and their scrum and if we can match them in that department we’ll have a really good chance of competing with them.”
The collective performance is the net result of individual displays, of course.
“If every guy on the field wins his personal battle against his opposite number then 95 per cent of the time you’ll probably win the game,” he reasons.
Sunday’s outcome may well hinge on penalties conceded. Muller sees that as the single most significant fac tor.
“Discipline is going to be massive, absolutely massive — probably the most important part of the game,” he says.