Johann Muller seeks to lay Leinster bogey

Ulster’s departing Springbok believes discipline holds key to ending losing streak

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.

Yellow cards
"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.”

Massive underdogs
"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.

“That’s something we’ve spoken about already,” admits Muller, who has previously called for fire in the belly and ice in the head. “We already spoke about discipline and motivation, and getting up for games like this. There’s no doubt that derby games bring the best out of everybody, all the players on the field want to go that one step further. If you’re not up for games like this nobody wants you on the park, but you need to be clear in your head as well, and in games like this we’ve let the discipline slip a bit and that’s definitely going to be a massive focus for us this weekend.”

After 10 years with the Natal Sharks (nine with the Sharks Super Rugby team) and being part of the Springboks’ World Cup-winning squad, the retiring Muller makes no secret of how he and his family have fallen in love with Belfast and Ulster.

“On and off the field the last four years have been by far the best of my career. This place will always have massive fond memories and we’ll definitely be back on a yearly basis to come and visit this great place and these great people. I’ve loved my time here and hopefully we still have another two games to enjoy that.”

After six more weeks in Belfast, Muller will retire to the family farm of cattle, sheep, ostriches and some wheat, about 15 minutes outside Mossel Bay on South Africa’s Western Cape, where he has built a “retirement” home for himself, his wife Mariska and daughter Anja.

“I’m not going to be involved in rugby initially. I just want to find my feet and look after my family and farm life as best as possible, but I’m sure down the line I’ll definitely be involved again and give something back to this wonderful game. It’s given me so much over the last 16 years and I would love to give something back.”

Overdue first trophy
Were Ulster to procure two wins, it would mean Muller lifting an overdue first trophy in his time with the province. "All of us want to win a trophy. Yes, we've been close. We've been in quarter-finals and semi-finals and finals for the last four years and still we don't have that trophy.

“In saying that I’ve played for 16 seasons and my mindset hasn’t changed in that time. I wanted to win a trophy but the reality is that that doesn’t always happen and I’m sure Leinster are exactly the same. They want their hands on this trophy.”

“But this is not about me. If you make it about yourself and personal battles you forget about the job in hand and even as a squad there’s only one focus this week, and it’s not Johann Muller, it’s about Ulster rugby and what we want to achieve as a group.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times