Johannesburg - Eight South African players have claimed Heineken Cup winners’ medals and former Springbok captain Johann Muller is out to add his name to that roll of honour.
The 24-times capped lock, who captained the Springboks in the 2007 test against New Zealand in Christchurch, is now the Ulster skipper and has led the Irish province to the prestigious and money-spinning Heineken Cup quarterfinals where they travel south to meet Munster in an-all Ireland contest at Thomond Park, Limerick on Sunday, 8 April.
Muller was in the Ulster side beaten 23-13 by Northampton Saints in last season’s quarterfinals and, along with fellow ‘Boks Ruan Pienaar and Pedrie Wannenburg, is determined to go one better this time.
“Ruan and Pedrie are two phenomenal players who I have known for an incredibly long time and they are certainly making their marks with Ulster,” said Muller.
“It is great to see how well we have all settled in to what are our second homes right now and I am really looking forward to the match against Munster.
“Losing to Northampton in last season’s quarterfinals was really disappointing, especially after the rugby we played in the first half. However, on the day they deserved the win and we knew we had lost to a quality side who then went on all the way to the final.
“The quarterfinal is going to be incredibly tough, no doubt about that, but if we want to go at least one better that than last year then we have to go to Thomond Park and get the win that would take us into the last four and a semifinal against either Edinburgh or Toulouse.
“Playing another Irish team in the quarters is a bit of a Catch 22 situation – it has both its good and its bad points.
“Munster are the top side in this season’s Heineken Cup, they finished the Pool stages as the No 1 ranked team, so obviously they are the leading team in Europe right now.
“However, we play them regularly in the domestic league so we know what to expect from them and there should not be any great surprises for either team.
“I am really enjoying the Heineken Cup – I am regularly asked about the difference between that tournament and the Super 15 but they really are totally different competitions, mainly because of the weather – but the Heineken Cup is certainly good fun and a top quality tournament.”
And Muller is not content with Ulster just being one of the elite clubs in Europe – he wants the Irish province to be the best and go all the way by lifting the Heineken Cup in the 17th tournament final at Twickenham Stadium on 19 May.
“Twelve months ago we were perhaps just happy to get out of our Pool because that was something that Ulster had not managed for 12 years,” said Muller.
“Now we are totally focused on going as far as possible in this season’s tournament and we believe we have the quality to upset any side.
“David Humphreys, the Director of Rugby, has made some really good signings over the last few years and the extra experience the South African and New Zealand players bring to the squad from playing all around the world is huge, particularly knowing just what it takes to win big games.
“But it is not mainly about the overseas players, just look at the youngsters who have come through the Ulster system and you can see what the future holds.”
The eight South African Heineken Cup winners are:
Glen Gelderbloom (Leicester Tigers 2001 and 2002); Trevor Halstead (Munster Rugby 2006); Daan Human (Toulouse 2005 and 2010); Gary Pagel (Northampton Saints 2000); Shaun Payne (Munster Rugby 2006); Shaun Sowerby (Toulouse 2010); Richardt Strauss (Leinster Rugby 2011) and Heinke van der Merwe (Leinster Rugby 2011)