A brace of high-profile imports are at the heart of Ulster’s rapid rise according to another southern hemisphere born star.
Springbok duo Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar have been a revelation since arriving at Ravenhill this season and Australian-raised Ireland prop Tom Court cannot speak highly enough of their collective contribution.
The South African signings have already become cult heroes in Belfast since joining from the Durban-based Sharks, with both players living up to their big-name billings so far this term.
Second row Muller has already featured in 14 Magners League matches, playing the full 80- minutes 12 times, while scrum-half cum fly-half Pienaar has made 10 appearances despite being unavailable for the first four games of the season.
Court insists both Muller and Pienaar have quickly established themselves as vital cogs in the Ulster wheel both on and off the field, something that can often take foreign stars far longer to achieve when switching hemispheres.
“Johann and Ruan have slotted in very well. They’re great guys and they’re always up for a bit of Craic,” said Court, who himself made the move from South to North back in 2006.
“Johann’s leadership has really come to the fore, especially with Rory (Best) being away with Ireland. Johann has taken the reigns from him.
“Johann’s been keeping everyone’s mind on the games and really helping us push on.
“He has a lot to do with the lineout and the forward play already but it’s more his leadership and his calming voice on the pitch to try and make sure everyone stays calm and realises that there’s no need to stress. Johann keeps it all under control.
“With Ruan, he’s got fantastic skills and it’s just a matter of letting him play. He controls the game so well from nine for us. He gives us quick ball and his distribution has been fantastic.
“Ruan pulls all the strings even though he’s a fairly quite character. It’s just added an extra dimension to what we’ve been able to do this year.”
Ruan Pienaar kicked Ulster to victory over the Dragons
Muller and Pienaar have helped guide Ulster to fourth in the Magners League standings with just five games remaining until the end of the regular season.
Four successive victories have seen Ulster move level on points with third-placed Leinster who are the only top-four side Court and co have left to play this term.
A successful Six Nations period has hugely enhanced their Play-Off chances ahead of home games with the Scarlets and Connacht and away ties at Glasgow and the Dragons, as well as that April 16 trip to Dublin.
But while Ulster are now being heavily tipped to secure a semi-final spot, Court insists no one within the camp is taking anything for granted.
“We can’t really afford to be dropping points or letting any games slide,” added Court.
“We’re on the run in towards the finals now and there were probably one or two games earlier on in the season which we let slip. A few points that we dropped would have come in handy now but the main point is that we’re still in contention and we’re still in touching distance of the Play-Offs.
“It’s a matter of pushing on now. We’re still in it and we’ve got a very good chance of pushing on with our run in. It’s a bit of a cliche, but it’s about taking every game as it is and just focusing on the next game to make sure we get the maximum points we can.
“The boys have been building, the confidence is very high and everybody is very happy with the way things have gone. But it’s all for nothing if everything drops off and we start sliding down.
“In the past, especially last season, the last few games have been fairly intense because we’ve been fighting to finish above Connacht and make sure we stay in the Heineken Cup places.
“It’s a little bit of a different perspective this season. We’ve started pushing for the top rather than being at the bottom. It’s a matter of keeping that consistency up.
“You can say that it’s gone a lot better this season and that Ulster are playing a lot better but we have very high expectations for the end of the season.
“If things don’t go our way and we don’t make the finals of the Magners, we’ll be very disappointed.”