Johann Muller seeks to lay Leinster bogey
Ulster’s departing Springbok believes discipline holds key to ending losing streak
Johann Muller thanks the crowd after what may have been his final appearance at Ravenhill against Leinster last month. Photograph: Brian Little/Inpho/Presseye.
They’re not quite on the scale of Clermont, but Ulster are becoming a little haunted by past failures, losing six of nine knock-out ties in their last four campaigns – three Heineken Cup quarter-finals, a Pro12 semi-final and a final in each competition.
There have been a myriad of factors at work, be it meeting a better team or a bad draw, bad performance or bad luck. This season has marked further progress in the manner they won six from six in the Heineken Cup pool stages, completing doubles over Leicester and Montpellier, yet it ended in even more acute heartbreak.
While they accept the red card against Tom Court in the defeat to Leinster a fortnight ago may have been justified Johann Muller, like his coach Mark Anscombe, still fervently believes that the pivotal Jared Payne sending off against Saracens represented very bad luck.
“The same offences have been committed in the last five or six weeks with only penalties or yellow cards awarded. On a different day it might have only have been a penalty or a yellow card,” says Muller, who found it ironic that at last Sunday’s annual Pro12 awards Ulster shared the Fair Play award with Connacht.
If ever there was a team Ulster wanted to beat in the knock-out stages of a tournament, it is assuredly Saturday’s Pro12 semi-final opponents, given Leinster have ended their last three seasons in a Pro12 semi-final and final either side of a Heineken Cup final.
“Every year at this time of season we manage to pull Leinster in some form of semi-final or final and our season has maxed out basically,” admits Muller wryly. “They’ve got a quality side, they’ve had very few changes in the last five or six years, they’re just getting stronger and stronger every year, and obviously they’re playing with a huge amount of emotion as well with two of the legends of Irish and Leinster rugby retiring at the end of the season.”
“But we’re excited. We’ve got a chance to go down to the RDS obviously as massive underdogs and just go out there and play some good rugby,” says Muller, which suggests that despite their desperation for a first trophy since the league success of seven seasons ago, they are seeking to ease some of that pressure on themselves.
In a further irony, between those two early red cards at Ravenhill against Saracens and Leinster, Ulster beat Connacht 58-12 and Welsh referee Lee Davies did not penalise them once in 80 minutes. Nevertheless, the wildly ill-disciplined first quarter against Leinster reinforced the feeling that at times Ulster can be too wound up for their own good.
This is an added danger, perhaps, against Leinster, who have also been bulk suppliers to team Ireland, and with the squad for the Argentine tour to be picked on Sunday and announced next Monday.