Ulster eye Titanic prize
Ulster captain Johann Muller showed a perfect 50-50 mix of confidence and eager anticipation as he looked forward to the coming season.
At yesterday's Belfast Titanic launch of the RaboDirect PRO12 season, the big South African took his place among the dozen competing sides' skippers and coaches.
With Ulster having topped last term's PRO12 table, the honour of hosting the launch fell to the northern province's capital city. Belfast City Hall was the venue for a meal attended by the PRO12's touring entourage.
He may be 33 and he may have led the Springboks against New Zealand in the course of an illustrious career, but that does not stop big lock forward Muller being as excited as any Hughes Insurance Ulster Academy graduate ahead of another campaign, his fourth with his adopted province.
Having led them to pole position in the 2012-13 campaign, only then to lose to Leinster in the play-off showdown at the RDS, Muller is convinced that Ulster are good enough to press on and underline that point by adding some of the silverware which has eluded them in finals in each of the past two seasons.
"Last year was a tough season for a lot of different reasons," he said.
"But I'm really excited and looking forward to a new season. I had a good break over the summer and have had a really good pre-season so far. A lot of training – hard training – has gone in in the past couple of weeks.
"It's so exciting to be able to put that jersey on again and play in front of a home crowd or an away crowd and experience that excitement again.
"I can't wait for the first game and for the whole season. Hopefully we'll have a bit more luck this year and we can go that one step further."
Referring to his own injury-jinxed 2012-13, he joked: "Hopefully I can stay on the park a little bit longer this year."
Right now he is in very good shape. "Very good, there are no problems at all," his reply when asked about his condition.
"I've had a tough couple of weeks training-wise, but that's what you expect at this time of year with pre-season. I'm really looking forward to the games and to getting back out on the pitch again," he added.
He knows Ulster are better – considerably better – than when he joined them in the summer of 2010.
"It's a different set-up, a different squad. When I arrived here four years ago now, if we'd had 23 guys unavailable through injury, as we had last year at a stage, there is no chance that we would have been able to put a competitive side on the field," he stressed.
"Last year, even though we had 23 guys unavailable through injury once or twice in the season, we still put a really good side on the field.
"We can compete with anybody in this league and I think that's the exciting thing. I think every single position within our squad at this stage we've got two or three guys who are pushing each other.
"There's great competition in the squad and whenever you have that, that brings the best out of each individual.
"I think that's exciting, not only for the coaching staff but from the players' point of view as well. You're getting pushed to the limit and that's what it takes to get to the top," he said.
Sitting alongside Muller, Mark Anscombe nodded in agreement. Like the Ulster captain, head coach Anscombe believes important lessons were learned last season.
Now he is hoping that knowledge can be used to keep things moving forward.
"I suppose the biggest thing that came out – not only of the (PRO12) final but of the Saracens (Heineken Cup quarter-final) game – is having the confidence and belief to back yourself if there's a little bit of self-doubt or a little bit of tension," he said.
"I think in both games we didn't produce what we know we're capable of doing and that's something we've got to address this year.
"With the squad we've got, if we can keep them on the park we're comfortable with what we've got.
"What we've got to do is have that ability to back ourselves, believe in ourselves and perform that on the big stage. Play some rugby and back ourselves," he repeated.
With his overseas vacancies filled – to his total satisfaction – as a result of none of the incumbents' contracts having expired, Anscombe has not had to shop abroad for marquee signings.
"I suppose the biggest movement in any squad is always down to the international players. We're happy with the five we've got and none of them are off contract so that plays down any movement," he said.
"But the way we look at it this year is that with some of the injuries we had last season, getting those boys back is like having new signings."
Willing, ready and raring to go. That's the mood shared by Ulster's captain and coach alike.
After the formalities, Darren Edwards, the new head coach of Newport Gwent Dragons, who host Ulster in the opening match on Friday week, fired a salvo by warning: "We have evolved, we have improved.
"Back row is a particularly strong area for us. There is going to be a lot of competition for places there. It was big for us retaining Toby Faletau on the back of the Lions tour. That's a huge foundation and a good statement for us."
And Dragons captain Andrew Coombs added: "A winning start is huge. Having Ulster first up is going to be tough.
"But I think there's enough in our team to catch them cold. We've got to play them at some point in the season so why not the first day?"