Mils Muliaina might have 100 All Black caps, but the 34-year-old still has something to prove as he prepares for his Connacht debut.
Undoubtedly the world's best fullback for a number of years playing for the All Blacks, Muliaina is expected to make his first start for the Irish province tomorrow evening after six months recovering from elbow surgery which cut short his Super 15 season with the Chiefs.
He arrived in the west of Ireland on a one year contract with a CV littered with accolades, but, having endured a tough couple of years plagued with injuries, Muliaina now has a new list of priorities in Connacht .
“When I made my decision it was a long way to come, and I think I wanted to prove myself also. So that is what it is about now, if I play well and things are going pretty good, then hopefully it will take care of itself. That really starts by getting out on Friday.”
Having “mentored” Connacht’s youngsters since August, Muliaina is now anxious to get back to what he does best on the field.
“The first two or three weeks were pretty exciting, knowing I was there to help out guys, and talk, and do the rehab side, but there comes a time when you think ‘oh man I can’t wait to get back out there’, because I was not actually physically contributing as opposed to sitting back and talking to guys. I have edged a little bit closer and I am so looking forward to getting back out on the field, and it’s now not too far away.”
Cleared by his New Zealand surgeon - having had his elbow reattached twice - Muliaina resumed full contact two weeks ago in preparation for tomorrow’s contest. It has been a long process, he says, but one which has also yielded positives.
“ I have rehabbed a heck of a lot, strengthening my elbow and the rest of my body, as I haven't had a chance to rehab a lot of the things that needed doing, getting back into the running. I had a few hiccups along the way - tightness with the load.
“Off the field it has been an absolute blessing. I have got to know the guys without too much pressure on being out on the field, being able to bond and getting used to guys’ names, putting names to faces.
“Just being able to watch games and getting a feel for the fans has been great - what really stands out is how passionate the fans are compared to New Zealand. Walking around town, they say ‘Gidday’ and there has been a lot that which has been fantastic.”
Muliaina, a brand ambassador for Mazda, and his partner Jo have embraced their new environment.
“A lot of things I have never done at home, like go to the pub and talk to locals, having the chance to sit back and relax, test the difference in Guinness at different pubs, and go to events like the oyster festival. It’s funny because I didn’t think Guinness would taste different in different places, but it actually does.”
Another first for Muliaina was being a pundit on BBC television for the recent Scotland v New Zealand match. “I had been asked a few times at home, but had never done it - thought ‘nah, it’s not my cup of tea’, so here I thought I would give it a go and really enjoyed it.”
The occasion should have given Muliaina a chance to catch up with Kiwi friends, but the matter of a match this week was uppermost.
“I arrived in late Saturday afternoon, and decided to get myself back home afterwards. I had texts from the lads asking to meet me, but I was conscious I needed to have a good training week.”
It is that work ethic that has been the recipe for his success, from winning a schools rugby world championship to a World Cup in 2011 with the All Blacks, despite the shoulder injury which cut his international career short.
Playing league until he was 12, Muliaina switched to rugby because of the lack of competition for league in New Zealand’s deepest south city Invercargill.
“I spent the last year [of school] in Auckland [on a scholarship to Kelston Boys where Graham Henry was a former headmaster]. It all went from there - it just happened and if I can think back, it never dawned on me that I could be actually be, although the dream was to be an All Black, I never sat down and said these are the steps I have to take. I just really loved sport and made teams.”
Modestly, Muliaina says his success is down to hard work.
“I have a little bit of natural talent, not overly, but 90 per cent is working really hard, a lot of sacrifices, learning along the way when you come up against different bumps on the path to becoming a professional. There has been a lot of knuckling down to ensure you do stay on that path - and it’s been a heck of a path so far.”
That diligence is necessary to become an All Black centurion - one of only five in New Zealand - in addition to what Muliaina calls the “fear factor’.
“As an All Black and a former All Black there is that expectation, and that is why I have been successful over the years because there is an expectation when you have worn that jersey - you are more scared to lose it than what you feel when you do win it - the fear factor of not letting the country down and the jersey itself.
“I do feel there is an expectation on me, I knew that was going to happen prior to signing and looking at where Connacht have been, and particularly while I have been here, there is that expectation that I have to perform given where I am at in my career.”
“But it’s just like what I have learned - you have to embrace it. If I get out this weekend, it’s all about the things I have always known - doing my job right, and yeah, I have to play well. I think I have come through the last couple of weeks in good stead.”
It is now time to practice what he has been preaching to Connacht’s young backline, he says. “In the last four months I have been talking and giving advice, and now I have to get out there and do it - different running lines, execution of our moves, different lines guys can run and do to open up a gap. That is what I have tried to implement and now I have to make sure I can do exactly those things, make good decisions and lead by example.
“It is one thing I have always been big on and that is not to ask people to do things I cannot do, and this weekend will give me an opportunity to do that.”
Muliaina believes Connacht have improved immeasurably in the time he has been in Galway.
“I have seen a massive lift, an awareness of what guys know their roles are. There is no doubting they are good athletes, they train, they are focused on doing weights - back home they are more focused on skills - but I have seen a big lift in that here, a massive improvement, and that is why we are sitting where we are in the table.”
Despite all the achievements, Muliaina says there are plenty more on his ‘to do list’ “I want to be able to, if I was to finish up here in Connacht, leave with them in a better place, that I have been able to implement some things to make them better, and that is the whole focus of why I signed - the one thing I really thought I could actually give back and wanted to achieve.
“Yes, we are in a better place on the table, but it could be better. You don't want to leave it there, you want to know the things you have helped create here are the start of a legacy - that Connacht will be among the best, if not the best team, in Ireland, and that is the real driver for me now - to make sure I leave that here ... hopefully in a few more years.”
Firstly, however, Muliaina is “fingers crossed” for tomorrow. “I am just really excited now. People think you’re excited the day before, but it started for me last week, making sure I have everything I need, the equipment, and it’s ready to go, making sure my body is right.
“ That excitement is every single day from the last week or so I knew I was going to be available. Every day I have come home and ticked the box and the closer and closer it has got, it has become more exciting. It’s about getting that feeling back, that excitement to play, to be out there in the middle with people cheering, and doing the best I can and making sure I have prepared properly to give it my best - that is what is exciting me at the moment. I can’t want to get out there amongst it.”