Tuesday 28 January 2020

Muller leads Ulster's steely core of Springboks who believe Lord sent them on mission to lift province and 'touch lives'

Hugh Farrelly

ULSTER'S seminal quarter-final victory over Munster may have been conceived in Belfast and ruthlessly executed in Limerick but it was forged in South Africa.

Munster had only lost one previous Heineken Cup game in Thomond Park and, although Ulster's steady rate of improvement under Brian McLaughlin was acknowledged in the build-up, very few envisaged the top seeds being done over in their own lair.

The key for Ulster was their South African spine, a collection of Springboks who had all proven their worth at the top level and, imbued with natural leadership qualities, were unfazed by the famous ground's formidable reputation.

Johann Muller led the side superbly from the second-row, steeling the pack when they were on the back foot for large tracts of the game; Pedrie Wannenburg had his best performance in an Ulster jersey in the back-row; Stefan Terblanche (who had looked a dubious short-term acquisition given his 36 years) oozed calm authority from full-back; and Ruan Pienaar ran the show at scrum-half.

INSPIRATIONAL

When added to the nous and power of New Zealand's World Cup-winning tight-head John Afoa (suspended for the semi-final) and some inspirational performances from home-grown players Stephen Ferris, Rory Best, Chris Henry and Craig Gilroy, it proved too much for Munster to handle.

Tony McGahan is a pretty astute operator, who had done well to bring an injury-ravaged and transitional squad unbeaten through the pool stages, but the Munster coach knew what was coming in the build-up and had no doubt where Ulster's core strength lay.

"They (the South Africans) bring a real confidence, hardness and doggedness to their play," said McGahan. "You have seen them in close quarters, the talk when they are in huddles, the way they present themselves and galvanise and bring other players through in and around them."

Ulster's South African link is not a new phenomenon, extending back to Dion O'Cuinneagain's time with the province in the late 1990s and accelerating when Alan Solomons took over as coach.

Solomons oversaw a steady influx of his countrymen -- Robbie Kempson, Warren Brosnihan, Clinton van Rensburg and Russell Nelson -- which was followed later in the decade by Carlo Del Fava (South-African raised Italian) and Robbie Diack (Irish -qualified on the residency rule).

Favourable reports of Ulster rugby travelled back south and undoubtedly helped in the acquisition of the current crop of Springboks, who have proved the most effective of all.

The South Africans have spoken about an identity with Northern Ireland's troubled past, given their own country's upheaval during the Apartheid era, and another draw factor is the appreciation of Christian values in Ulster.

Muller, Pienaar and Wannenburg are devout Christians, eager to impart their faith to new parishioners, and those convictions are mirrored in home-grown players such as Andrew Trimble, Nevin Spence and Paddy McAllister.

Indeed, Muller puts his decision to join Ulster down to a higher calling to spread the Christian word.

"My wife and I made a decision to move overseas. We were 70pc sure (about Ulster), but we then went to church a week later," recalled Muller.

"There was an evangelist over from Manchester and out of nowhere he said, 'sir, can you stand up' pointing at me. I did as I was told, and he said 'God has opened a door for you and he wants you to take it'.

"The guy told me God saw me over here and was using me for his works. It was a wonderful confirmation and we didn't need to think twice."

While Ulster's overseas reliance does not make the job of Ireland coach Declan Kidney any easier in the short-term as he seeks consistent game time for Irish-qualified players, the long-term benefits of driving the province to the top table of European rugby should be productive in bringing on local talent.

Progress in the Heineken Cup has re-energised the sport in the province and the likes of Pienaar and Muller have become cult figures and sporting heroes, inspiring youngsters to flock to the sport after a period since their 1999 European triumph when Ulster rugby had been largely stagnant.

Like McGahan, Edinburgh coach Michael Bradley is well aware of the overwhelming influence of Ulster's South African stars, and while he brings a side of predominantly Scottish players to Dublin (see panel) determined to make a statement for their country, they cannot compete with Ulster's imported winning experience.

When that is accentuated by an inner belief among Pienaar and Co that they are on a path of destiny and fulfilment, Edinburgh's task becomes especially daunting.

"I had many offers from different places, France, England, you name it but I said to my wife before we came here that we had to be strong in our faith and I believe that God gave me a door to walk through here at Ulster," says Pienaar.

"Being here gives me an enormous sense of purpose -- I am not just here for rugby, I'm here to touch lives."

It is impossible to overstate the influence of Ulster's South African motivators who, according to McGahan, carry a "real, unshakeable belief" into every contest. It is a belief that could drive Ulster all the way to glory.

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