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Muller goodbye plus Afoa and Court exits leave massive boots to fill

By Niall Crozier

Confirmation that captain Johann Muller is calling it a day at the end of the season leaves Ulster with three huge gaps to fill.

The big South African is the third of Ulster's front-five forwards to have announced his departure, props Tom Court and John Afoa having decided to try pastures new at London Irish and Gloucester respectively.

With that trio will go a vast amount of experience.

Muller's 24 caps for South Africa include him having been a member of the World Cup-winning squad in 2007, the year in which he captained the Springboks against the All Blacks, the biggest rugby fixture on the planet.

Afoa, too, is a World Cup winner having featured for New Zealand who lifted the William Webb Ellis Trophy two and a half years ago.

He made 36 Test appearances before retiring from international rugby – and you don't pack down on the tight-head side of an All Blacks front row three dozen times unless you are a pretty special player.

To date Court has played for Ireland on 32 occasions, as well as having lined out once for last summer's Lions, albeit that was as a result of having been on holiday in his native Australia at a moment when the tourists' props were going down like skittles and there was insufficient time to fly out reinforcements.

Between them, those three players boast 92 Test appearances.

That's the size of the gap Ulster must now fill.

David Humphreys, the province's Director of Rugby, has proved his ability as a man capable of wooing world-class players to Belfast.

To the names of Muller (pictured), Afoa and Jared Payne can be added that of Ruan Pienaar.

Not only did Humphreys succeed in bringing him to Ulster, he has since persuaded him to sign a contract extension.

Both as a man and a negotiator, it is evident Humphreys enjoys enormous respect north and south of the equator.

Now he must maximise that fact once again.

Humphreys' cause will be helped not only by Ulster's record on the pitch but by progress off it, too.

Ravenhill has become one of Europe's best rugby complexes, boasting facilities and staff second to none.

That is a major selling point Humphreys can use to Ulster's advantage.

Alas, at this stage, there is little he can do about the game's politics and until such times as southern hemisphere players know the nature of competitions in which they will be playing and the calibre of those with – and against – whom they will asked to perform, getting them to sign up is not going to be easy.

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