Connacht show intent as Mils Muliaina arrives on one-year contract

Signing of 100-cap All Black will help province’s younger players develop

Although many heavy-hitting rugby names have landed in Ireland in recent years, it is hard to recall such

an intense sense of anticipation as there is now, with Mils Muliaina agreeing a one-year deal with Connacht.

Christian Cullen’s arrival to hundreds of fans in Cork Airport registered a high note for Munster, but the arrival of a record-breaking All Black, currently recovering from surgery on an elbow, has energised Galway and the west.

The 33-year-old Muliaina had recently returned to the Chiefs after a two-year spell in Japan, and although he had hoped to delay the repair work on his niggling problem until the end of the season, he went for surgery last month.


Tip balance
In Leinster the players have long experience of how judiciously chosen imported players can tip the balance in matches. Brad Thorn, Felipe Contepomi, Rocky Elsom and the immeasurable Isa Nacewa shaped Leinster in their own way; and, in Muliaina, Gordon D'Arcy sees Connacht as gaining another player like the Fijian – a playmaker who can skip around most back-line positions.

While Muliaina's 100 caps for New Zealand comes with the knowledge that he is now being in the twilight of his career, there is nothing but admiration for Pat Lam's chutzpah and big thinking. D'Arcy has played against the fullback, centre and wing and he met a player who very rarely did anything but the right thing at the right time.

“It’s an unbelievable signing for Connacht. He’s as close a player as you’ll get to Isa,” said D’Arcy yesterday. “He makes incredibly good decisions under pressure – that’s what a really, really good player is, someone who makes good decisions and makes the players around him look good.

First name on team sheet
"He has 100 caps for the All Blacks and he was the first name on the team sheet for all of those years. When we were doing the analysis, he was the guy who did the right things. The wingers looked fantastic, they were getting all the tries. But he's a fantastic player and he'll definitely bring that experience, and guys can learn a lot from him."

Muliaina played his 100th time for the All Blacks against Argentina at the 2011 World Cup. But he was forced out of the match at half-time after injuring his shoulder, which was later shown to be fractured. It ended his participation in the competition and effectively ended his international career, but not before he picked up a World Cup winner’s medal.

It's hoped his experience will filter through to the players on the Connacht squad and to the younger talent particularly, where Robbie Henshaw, Dave McSharry and Darragh Leader should benefit. Muliaina has signed a one-year contract to become the first ever All Black to play at the Sportsground.

“It’s what you want to have, the best players coming and bringing the standard up across the board,” says D’Arcy. “When you’re playing and training at a higher level and a higher standard, it only improves you as a player. I had it here, training with seasoned internationals like Felipe (Contepomi), Brian (O’Driscoll), Chris Whitaker and Rocky (Elsom).

“These guys were at a higher level and they pushed you to be at a higher level. Then you had Brad Thorn coming in and he showed another level. As long as you’re competitive and willing to learn, it will be fantastic for the squad and for certain individuals.”

Dependable and dynamic
At fullback Muliaina is dependable and dynamic. His pace and ability to strike back in counterattacks made him a valuable weapon on successive All Blacks sides.

He was included in the New Zealand squad for the 2003 World Cup in Australia, where he finished joint top try-scorer with seven tries in seven matches, alongside team-mate and former Munster captain, Doug Howlett. Lam has had his eye on the Samoan-born utility back as far back as two years ago when the coach was with the Auckland Blues.

“On the leadership front, our group is very forward-dominated, so what he can bring to our young players, on and off the field, is massive,” said Lam. “I saw that he was in great nick and was playing well and I tried to get him back to the Blues. We have stayed in touch and, now that I know the lie of the land here in Connacht, the best fullback /centre we could possibly have is Mils.

“It was imperative we met the key agents in New Zealand to sell the vision of Connacht. Of course it was Leinster, Munster and Ulster they knew, so we needed to help them understand where Connacht is going, and when I spoke to Mils, it was that vision and my relationship with him that helped.”

Dan Parks leaves, but Muliaina comes in. That should make the Connacht heart beat a little louder.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times