Time to go

Former Springbok lock Johann Muller will retire from rugby at the end of this European season, writes JEREMY PROOME.

Johann Muller says he has produced possibly the best rugby of his career over the past four years at Ulster, but his body won’t allow him to continue.

The former Bok lock joined the Irish club in 2010, having played 147 matches for the Sharks (Super Rugby and Currie Cup) over a nine-year period.

‘I had offers from other overseas clubs, but I chose Ulster because of their director of rugby, David Humphreys,’ says Muller. ‘David travelled to South Africa and after speaking with him, I told my wife that if the people at Ulster were anything like David, I was going. And it was the best decision of my life.’

Another Shark and Springbok, scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, also signed for Ulster and their arrival coincided with the start of a successful period for the club (South African flank Robbie Diack had been there since 2008). Muller, though, doesn’t think it was all down to the Springbok influence.

‘People tend to put us on pedestals, but I don’t believe two individuals can make such a difference. We were fortunate to step into a new set-up and a period of change at the club – player-wise and in terms of management. We have played some good rugby, but it’s due to the entire team. I’d say we’ve been very lucky.’

Muller’s career will end at Ulster, but it started at the Sharks in 2001 with the Vodacom Cup side and he would make his Super Rugby debut the following year.

‘I was fortunate enough to play Super Rugby before even playing Currie Cup,’ says Muller. ‘It was kind of a right place, right time scenario, with injuries to key players allowing me to step up and be included in the Super Rugby squad. We had a poor season, but it was a great personal moment for me, knowing all my hard work was finally paying off.’

In 2006, Muller was called up to the Springbok squad for the first time and made his debut against Scotland at his home ground.

‘The Sharks had such a great Super Rugby season before losing our last league match to the Bulls, and failing to make the semi-finals. It was incredibly disappointing for us. I didn’t expect to be selected for the Springboks, so to turn on the TV and see my name was unreal.

‘My debut was incredibly special; it’s a cliche but it really was a dream of mine as a kid  to play for the Springboks, so achieving that was an emotional and rewarding moment.’

Muller went on to earn 24 Test caps and played in two World Cups, in 2007 and 2011.

‘It’s not a question of if I want to retire, I have to. My body has taken a beating'

‘While being part of a World Cup-winning squad is an obvious highlight, winning the Currie Cup in 2008 [the Sharks’ first trophy in 12 years] was the finest moment of my career,’ says Muller. ‘I was dropped from the Boks when Peter de Villiers took over as Bok coach in 2008, and was so incredibly disappointed to miss out on playing for my country. But being cut from the squad allowed me to return to the Currie Cup that season, which we won. So, I guess you can say everything happens for a reason.’

However, Muller did end up playing another two Tests for the Boks, the dead rubber against the British & Irish Lions in 2009 and as a replacement in the pool match against Wales at the 2011 World Cup.

Muller still has to come to terms with his looming retirement, as he’s not only leaving the game behind but the rugby culture too.

‘I’m really going to miss the friendships and camaraderie I’ve enjoyed in the game over the past 16 years. Rugby has given me so much, and while it will be difficult, it’s something I need to do.

‘It’s not a question of if I want to retire, I have to. My body has taken a beating and I’m struggling from week to week. If I’m not training and playing to the best of my ability, I know it’s time to move on.’

Muller feels he still owes the world of rugby something but will need time away from the game.

‘I need to get back to focusing on my family, and in order to do that I must step away from the game a bit. I’m heading back to my family farm in South Africa, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.

‘Once I’ve settled and had some time to enjoy life and being away from the pressures of professional rugby, I’d love to get involved in some coaching – whether at school or club level.’

– This article first appeared in the April issue of SA Rugby magazine