Thursday 19 April 2018

Muller's crossing

Ulster’s South African second-row buried his international disappointment before starting a new chapter in Belfast. It proved to be the best decision of his life

South African Johann Muller has made a huge impression since arriving at Ulster
South African Johann Muller has made a huge impression since arriving at Ulster

Hugh Farrelly

THE ostrich. The world's largest bird, capable of speeds of up to 70km per hour and -- according to Ulster second-row Johann Muller -- damn fine eating.

Muller should know, hailing from a farm outside Mossel Bay on South Africa's Western Cape where ostriches are big business. The genial giant is an out-and-out farm boy and, although he has become accustomed to city life after 11 years in Durban playing for the Sharks and in his current abode in Belfast, he plans to return to the farming life once his rugby career is over.

He never had to kill an ostrich, a nearby abattoir took care of that job, nor was there any inclination to adopt one as a pet, but the 30-year-old has eaten plenty of them.

"Yeah, really tasty," he says. "Magnificent fillets for steaks. It's the only animal that you use every single thing on it -- skin, feathers and the meat.

"I do like the open spaces, we get in the car a fair bit here and drive around the countryside," says Muller, who lives with his wife and young daughter on the outskirts of Belfast.

"I'm from Mossel Bay, it's a small coastal town, very much a holiday town, jam-packed in the summer and nice and relaxed the rest of the year, exactly how I like it. It's a beautiful place, a lot of surfing, a lot of great white sharks and shark diving.

"Our farm is about 15 minutes outside Mossel Bay. It's a mixed farm: cattle, sheep, ostriches, some wheat as well. My plan is to go back to the farm one day. When that will be time will tell; as long as the body holds out and I am enjoying it, I would love to keep on playing."

Back to ostriches, which are most famous for two things: their inability to fly and their (apparently mythical) penchant for burying their heads in the sand. Neither characteristic appeals to Muller, as he demonstrated when deciding to uproot and start a new life in Ulster.

That decision was taken after Springboks coach Peter de Villiers told Muller he would never be picked as long as Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield were around.

For a player of Muller's ability and experience -- a man who had captained South Africa and performed consistently well over the course of 23 caps since his debut in 2006 under Jake White -- it was a kick in the guts, but, rather than rip into De Villiers, he opts for the sanguine approach.

"He told me if nobody gets injured I wouldn't be involved and I am at peace with that. Look, he will be judged on the World Cup this year and that's when we will see what he is made of.

"After the 2007 World Cup, the Sharks were the only South African team to make the semi-finals of the Super 14. I was captain and thought I played really well, but I got dropped and I knew then that I was not in De Villiers' plans, which he confirmed when we had a meeting.

"Botha and Matfield are quality players so, while it was frustrating, you have to accept it. After 2007, I didn't play for South Africa until he gave me a run against the Lions in the third Test in 2009, when Bakkies was suspended and we had already won the series.

"It's one of those things, tough to take, but I took the positives out of it and it made my mind up to come over here and that was one of the best decisions of my life."

There is genuine enthusiasm in Muller's voice when he talks about Ulster.


The South African influx did not come cheap, but any accusations of a mercenary approach are well wide of the mark when it comes to Muller who has given his all, both as a grafting second-row and a leader bringing on the younger, less experienced players around him.

"I've loved it, absolutely loved it. I played in Durban for 11 years and you can get into a bit of a comfort zone and coming over here pushed me out of that. My family have settled in very well and the weather isn't as bad as everybody said. It's been a new lease of life for me."

The Afrikaner-Ulster link is well established from former coach Alan Solomons through to the current group of Muller, BJ Botha, Pedrie Wannenburg and Ruan Piennaar, and has been attributed to a shared culture of Calvinism.

Like his colleagues Andrew Trimble and Pienaar, Muller's Christianity plays a major role in his life and he has been giving talks on his faith at various centres around Belfast while also learning about Belfast's troubled past -- something he says South Africans can relate to.

"I knew about the Troubles but never really understood the background before. It seems that it's 100 times better than it was in the past although, unfortunately, there are still isolated incidents.

"Every country has their growing pains to come through. South Africa has had plenty of its own but is in a much better situation now, just as Belfast is a lot better since the 1980s.

"I have been really grateful for the opportunity to give talks about my faith which have, thankfully, been well received.

"There are not a lot of sports people in Ireland and Northern Ireland who have spoken about their faith and it's one thing that I really want to get out there.

"Sometimes we don't recognise what a fortunate position we are in as professional sportsmen and it's important to get a good message out to young kids -- I have got a little daughter of my own. Hopefully, we have touched one or two people."

Ulster, who play the Dragons this evening, are in the mix for the Magners League title and after the disappointment of their Heineken Cup quarter-final exit to Northampton, are determined to end the season on a high. However, that high won't include a night on the town for Muller should Ulster go on to claim the title.

"I'll have a beer with the boys if we win it, but I won't have six. Being a Christian is not being boring, you can still have a good time, but there's a line.

"I haven't been out in Belfast yet, but I do drink a glass of red wine with my wife regularly and there's nothing wrong with that. Enjoying life is one of the things the Lord wanted us to do, so I am living life and I am loving it."

Irish Independent

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