Muller's true grit can steer Ulster forward
AFTER two Magners League rounds, and two victories, Johann Muller is quickly becoming a cult hero in Ravenhill.
His team-mates describe Gysbert Johannes Muller as a "quiet man" and there's definitely a touch of the John Waynes about the 30-year-old, 6'7", square-jawed Springbok, whose forceful play and leadership has been crucial in the wins over the Ospreys and Aironi.
Muller leads out Ulster in Ravenhill tonight (8.05) as they attempt to make it three from three against a winless Edinburgh outfit. The second-row is one of four Springboks on Ulster's books this season, alongside prop BJ Botha, back-row Pedrie Wannenburg and utility back Ruan Pienaar, who arrived in Belfast on Wednesday.
Pienaar will be in the stands tonight, while Botha and Wannenburg are on the bench but Muller still has plenty of talent around him, not least in the shape of another South African, the uncapped Robbie Diack at No 8. He forms a powerful back row alongside Stephen Ferris and Chris Henry, while Ryan Caldwell starts his first Magners League match next to Muller.
Andrew Trimble makes a welcome return to action on the left wing and will look to continue the rich vein of form that made him one of the stand-out players on Ireland's difficult summer tour. US Eagle Paul Emerick makes his debut on the other wing with Jamie Smith coming in for Adam D'Arcy at full-back and Niall O'Connor holding onto the No 10 jersey ahead of Ian Humphreys.
Henry, a natural No 8, lines out at openside again and, although he was the regular captain while Rory Best was injured last season, the 26-year-old insists Muller is the ideal skipper.
"Basically, he is a quiet man," says Henry. "But if Johann has something to say he will say it. Everybody hangs on to every word he speaks. If he talks, they all listen. He has a great presence and is a great asset.
"When times are tough, his experience will come through, like it did in the opening two games of the Magners League, which were very tight at the end. For me, it means that I can just focus on my own game and also learn a lot from him as I go along," added Henry.
Edinburgh feel they deserved more than the losing bonus point they picked up last week at home to Munster, having played well in their opening defeat to Cardiff, and coach Rob Moffat will be looking for winger Tim Visser to add to the three tries he already has this season.
Moffat has made two changes to the side that lost to Munster with Craig Hamilton in at second-row in place of the injured Esteban Lozada and Roddy Grant back at open-side, where he captains the side.
With Chris Paterson lining out at 15 for the visitors, Ulster will have to mind their discipline around the relatively inexperienced Italian referee Alan Falzone and Emerick faces something of a baptism of fire against the size and speed of Visser. Mike Blair (an Ulster target before Pienaar's signature was secured) is another threat for Edinburgh and a significant test for Paul Marshall at scrum-half.
However, with confidence high after eight points from two matches, the home team can bring further satisfaction to a rejuvenated Ravenhill. Muller and his tight-five colleagues have the muscle and nous to provide set-piece security and Ulster look to have the edge in the back row. There is a huge onus on O'Connor to match Paterson off the kicking tee and coach Brian McLoughlin has some heavy hitters on the bench, not least Wannenburg and Humphreys.
It is likely to be another tight and tense affair but Muller has shown his 'Duke'-esque qualities in these situations before and if Ulster follow his lead, they can be top of the table by tonight.
ULSTER -- J Smith; P Emerick, I Whitten, D Cave, A Trimble; N O'Connor, P Marshall; B Young, A Kyriacou, T Court; J Muller (capt), R Caldwell; S Ferris, C Henry, R Diack. Reps: R Best, P McAllister, BJ Botha, T Barker, P Wannenburg, I Porter, I Humphreys, D McIlwaine.
EDINBURGH -- C Paterson; M Robertson, B Cairns, A Grove, T Visser; P Godman, M Blair; A Jacobsen, R Ford, G Cross; S MacLeod, C Hamilton; S Newlands, R Grant (capt), N Talei. Reps: A Kelly, K Traynor, J Gilding, S McInally, D Denton, G Laidlaw, D Blair, J Houston
REF -- A Falzone (Italy).
Ulster v Edinburgh,
Live, RTE 2, 8.05