Ulster invest in South African steel


RUGBY HEINEKEN CUP: Gavin Cummiskeymeets Ulster lock Johann Muller, one of four Springboks giving the province a new edge

IT HAS long been established that the toughest place to go and win a game of rugby is New Zealand.

Just ask the 2005 Lions. Or the 2007 Springboks.

Before the last World Cup, then South Africa coach Jake White made the brave decision to sacrifice the Tri-Nations away matches to New Zealand and Australia in an attempt to find the best 30-man squad.

With Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha put on ice, Johann Muller got his opportunity. If it wasn’t for these two brilliant locks we would know more about the man who will carry the battle to Imanol Harinordoquy and the Biarritz pack on Sunday.

When Bobby Skinstad cried off from the Christchurch Test in 2007, the captaincy went automatically to Muller.

Despite the 33-6 defeat to the supposedly world champions elect, White had seen enough to know how valuable the big man would be as a squad member.

Pedrie Wannenburg and Ruan Pienaar were alongside Muller in Christchurch as they will be in the Basque country as Ulster seek their first European win on French soil.

“It will be my first away game in Heineken Cup so it will be interesting to see what it is all about,” says Muller. “They played in the final last year and had a really good win against Bath away from home last week.”

At 30, Muller has been confined to just 22 Springbok caps (the last being the third Test against the Lions in 2009) mainly by Botha and Matfield, but a better example of his influence is evident in Natal. Even when Springbok leader Smit was back in the team, Muller retained the captaincy.

Echoes of that partnership can now be seen in the role he has immediately adopted as a lieutenant to Rory Best.

“We have a great captain in Rory Best so if I can just help out maybe now and then, just put in my half cent that would be fantastic. I have really enjoyed it so far and the guys have responded so hopefully I can continue doing it. If Rory is injured or absent maybe I can lead the team as well as he is doing it.

“I have always enjoyed the captaincy and leadership role but the captain only leads out the team. You need six or seven strong personalities around you to be a really successful team.

“That’s what happened at the Natal Sharks and I think it is happening over here. There are plenty of leaders, like Chris (Henry) and Stevie (Ferris).”

It is abundantly clear Ulster are attempting to bludgeon their way into the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time since 1999.

The recruitment of Muller, Wannenburg and extending BJ Botha’s contract, allied to the monstrous, if brittle, homemade flanker Ferris, provides the tools to adopt a power game, while the world-class Pienaar immediately added composure at scrumhalf.

“He is probably one of the most gifted players I have played with,” Muller says of Pienaar. “He has free rein from the coaching staff. He can run the side and make decisions. It is obviously paying off.”

The versatile halfback will be involved in a fascinating kicking duel with Biarritz talisman Dimitri Yachvili on Sunday. It will begin as a subplot but may well define the outcome of the contest, providing Ulster remain in touch entering the home strait.

Traditionally they have faltered at this juncture in Europe.

The investment in so many South Africans, like Muller, was to ensure days like Leinster and Munster have experienced in France can be replicated by the northern province.

“Obviously it makes it easier for us to have a couple of friends around us that we have known for a couple of years but it is not about that.

“Everyone that Ulster recruited is a really good rugby player but we know we have got to earn respect on the field. Every week.”