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Springbok boy - Johan Muller (Inpho)

Steady upward curve is often the best route to take to success and in each of the past four seasons Ulster have improved one step on their previous year’s Heineken Cup campaign. In 2007-08 they were fourth in their pool, then third in 2008-09, second in 2009-10 and last season they lost to Northampton in the quarter-finals. So, the 1999 champions look set to reach the semi-finals this year, and could do even better.

With a growing number of star turns on their team-sheet, a steady stream of young talent emerging to boost their strength in depth and a home ground which visiting teams find it tough to win at, Ulster have what it takes to win the Heineken Cup in May.

They got their campaign off to a super start with a 16-11 home win against Clermont Auvergne, but lost 20-9 at Leicester a week later. “Those two have been among the best sides in Europe over the last ten years, so we know it’s going to be unbelievably tough to get out of our pool,” says Ulster captain Johann Muller. “But these are the teams we want to play and beat so we can develop.”

Ulster excelled on two fronts last season, also reaching the semi-finals of the Magners League, so when Muller was handed the captaincy last summer he knew he had a tough act to follow. “Last year no one gave us a chance to do as well as we did. This year people are watching for us a bit more,” he says. “It’s tough for a club like ourselves, that isn’t one of the big clubs in Europe, to back up a big year with another big year. But we said as a team and a management we want to get better every single year. If we want to do that there are some big games in December that we have to win, but we like to put that bit of pressure on ourselves.”

The Springbok lock is by no means the only star name at Ulster – in fact the list is growing, with All Black prop John Afoa among those arriving this year. He joins Ireland stars like Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble, former skipper Rory Best and Paddy Wallace, plus Scotland’s Simon Danielli. “There are plenty of great guys,” Muller says. “Rory Best has been outstanding for us, not just during his captaincy but in the way he’s played and grown as a player over the last few months.

He was outstanding at the World Cup and he has brought that form back to Ulster. Ferris, Trimble, (Ian) Humphreys and Wallace all have that bit of aura about them. When they play well they seem to pull everyone with them.”

Ulster started the season without their eight World Cup players, and were also without last season’s Magners League Player of the Year Ruan Pienaar for much of the autumn due to a hamstring injury. However, Paul Marshall deputised superbly at scrum-half, underlining their growing strength in depth.

Youngsters are emerging to challenge for first-team places – players like wing Craig Gilroy, who burst onto the scene last season with eight tries in 14 appearances and has been at it again this year. “Craig has been outstanding and Nevin Spence has been brilliant this year, while Paddy McAllister is a really good young prop who, if he can stay injury-free, will play for Ireland very, very soon,” says Muller. “Those are just three of the guys pushing for starting spots.”

While Muller was with South Africa at the World Cup, he kept a close eye on Ulster’s form and was delighted to see them start the season with three RaboDirect Pro12 wins, but less thrilled with the four defeats that followed, including a shocking 23-12 loss to Benetton Treviso at Ravenhill. “That was really upsetting,” Muller says. “Home games are non-negotiable wins, in any competition.”

Johan Muller and Heinrich Brussow during training for the World Cup

The Belfast ground has been a proper fortress for Ulster in the Heineken Cup, as they haven’t lost a European game there since Stade Français beat them on 11 October 2008. “At Ravenhill we know the conditions and it can be windy and rainy and we use that well,” explains Muller. “It’s a special place for us to play. The crowd comes in early and you feel the vibe when you arrive an hour and a half before the game. The crowds are outstanding and we love playing there and other teams seem not to really enjoy it.”

Muller is excited about Ulster’s Heineken double header against Aironi on 9 and 17 December, and the games which 2012 will bring, believing his team can build on last season’s success.

“Playing in a quarter- or semi-final and getting out of your Heineken Cup pool for the first time in 12 years gives you that bit of experience, so if you get to that stage again you know what it takes to win,” he says. “The composure is there and the hunger to do well again this year. If we want to get out of our pool, these games against Aironi are two we have to win. We have everything to play for. We’re excited.”

This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Rugby World Magazine.

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