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Muller focused on the bigger picture

By Niall Crozier

Ulster captain Johann Muller is looking forward to much-needed game-time against Leicester Tigers tomorrow afternoon at Welford Road (3pm).

This will be his first outing since Ulster's 24-18 defeat by Leinster in the May 25 play-off for the 2013 RaboDirect PRO12 title and with the new campaign now just a week away he wants a really testing work-out for himself and his team.

The winners of last season's Aviva Premiership are likely to provide just that.

Now starting his fourth campaign since joining Ulster from Natal Sharks in the summer of 2010, Muller – whose 2012-13 campaign was disrupted by injuries – recognises the importance of getting into the groove quickly.

He admits that they will do well to match last season's flying start which saw them win their first 13 matches and reach mid-December before suffering their first defeat.

"I think last year was really special in the way that we started. But we're not looking at game two or three, or game 13 or game 15. The only thing that matters right now is Tigers away at the weekend," he said.

"It's a warm-up game but that is our focus right now. Then we'll take it week by week. Yes, there's going to be two or three or five or 10 guys unavailable from the first go, but there's a greater amount of competition within the squad and players who can play at this level at any given time.

"From a coaching point of view it's exciting to have those options to choose from."

Despite his insistence that Ulster's sights are fixed on the trip to Leicester, it was noticeable that Muller readily broke with convention by looking beyond that game to what lies quite a bit further down the track. In particular he highlighted four forthcoming meetings with Benetton Treviso.

They finished seventh in last season's PRO12 – the best performance by an Italian franchise to date – with their impressive campaign including a 29-29 draw at Ravenhill in March in response to Ulster's fortuitous last-gasp 16-15 win at Stadio Monigo on November 23.

This time around they are in Ulster's Heineken Cup pool, too, and Muller – who is full of respect for the impressive progress they have made since first joining the PRO12 in 2010-11 – believes they will pose a real threat.

"They've been one of the sides who have shown most improvement over the last two or three years since I've arrived," he said.

"Last year they had a really good season. Two years ago they came to Ravenhill and beat us. Last year they got a draw. I think that shows their quality."

It does indeed, for that is the best record of any group of Ravenhill visitors in the past two seasons of PRO12 action. Note too, that in the immediate aftermath of last term's PRO12 final at the RDS, then-Leinster coach Joe Schmidt marked Treviso as one to watch this season.

Continuing his praise of the Italians, Muller said: "I think that just shows the quality of the side. They have a lot of international players and I think Franco Smith has done an amazing job as coach.

"So it's going to be really tough, especially in Europe."

First things first, however. After tomorrow's work-out in Leicester, Ulster start their competitive campaign with a trip to Newport.

And although it's a friendly, Muller knows that the match at Welford Road will provide a good guide as to how well prepared they are for what awaits them at Rodney Parade six days later.

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