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Johann Muller focused on prosperous new year for Ulster

By Jonathan Bradley

Wednesday may have been a scheduled day off for Ulster's squad but, while many around the province awoke to the resounding thump of a New Year's Day headache, Johann Muller was not among them.

"Quiet one at home and in bed early," was how the captain described his conclusion to 2013.

His future at Ravenhill might well be measured in months rather than years, but Muller's focus is remaining squarely on rugby as Ulster enter a critical part of their season.

With RaboDirect PRO12 leaders Munster the visitors to Ravenhill tomorrow night, followed by Montpelier and Leicester in the Heineken Cup, the next three weeks are vital for Mark Anscombe's side if they are to win their first silverware since the 2006 Magners League title.

The South African World Cup winner is under no illusions as to the importance of January's fixtures, and stated: "These are the games that are going to define our season and in three weeks time we will be able to know exactly where we are at.

"It's very exciting but daunting at the same time, and obviously you are slightly nervous about it. We want to test ourselves against the best and over the next three weeks we will be playing against the best."

If Ulster are to successfully negotiate this testing slate of fixtures, they will require a marked improvement from the lifeless display that saw them lose 19-6 to Leinster on Saturday and Muller, who was rested for the defeat, is aware that a response is required.

"It's one of those games you really want to forget as quickly as possible but I think we'll make sure it is a one-off.

"The one thing was that Leinster had lost two on the bounce and they were desperate.

"We didn't match that and even if you have all the players and names in the world if you don't show that will to win then you're going to struggle.

"We didn't deserve a losing bonus point from that game, never mind a win, and Leinster got the four points they deserved so credit to them.

"The thing about rugby is you have a six-day turnaround and then you're into another massive game against a quality side and an opportunity to put things right."

And after a week of what the influential lock described as full of "soul searching", he is itching to get back on to the field and purge another RDS disappointment from the collective memory.

"Everyone in this group wants to be out there on Friday and you can see that in the edge there has been to training this week.

"It doesn't get any better than playing Munster in front of a sold-out Ravenhill, it's the kind of game that gets you out of bed in the morning and gets you going again."

Ulster struggled mightily at the breakdown on Saturday evening, coming out a distant second to a Leinster back-row unit that was made up Sean O'Brien, Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock, but their cause tomorrow night will be significantly boosted by the return from injury of Chris Henry and Nick Williams.

With the Heineken Cup looming on the horizon, Muller believes the return of the cavalry has come at an opportune time.

"It's brilliant to have these guys back and they're players that we've missed while they've been out.

"It's a difficult time of year with Christmas and New Year and you have players out injured and other players away at camp so it's great that we're getting to a point where everyone is coming back just in time for the next few weeks."

As noted by Muller, the festive period is one of much disruption in professional rugby, despite it coinciding with a host of potentially mouth-watering fixtures, but he does not necessarily agree with those that have opined that the traditional festive interpros should be moved to a time when we are more likely to see coaches name more familiar first choice line-ups.

He said: "You always want to see the best players but it's a 35-game season and, while it would be lovely if you could, you really can't play every game.

"I would have loved to have been involved against Leinster but realistically I can't play eight 80-minute games in a row. You need to take a break every so often and make sure you're fresh in the body and the mind for what is coming up.

"I know everyone wants to see the big names in this fixture but it's such a compact season with the Heineken Cup, the autumn internationals and the Six Nations so when else could you play them?

"Hopefully some of these sides will reach the late stages of the cups again and that's when we will see two full squads of 23 going against each other."

Muller knows that if one of those sides is to be Ulster, much will depend on the month ahead.

Belfast Telegraph

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