Connacht's biggest coup - Mils Muliaina becomes province's first All Black signing

Centurion All Black Mils Muliaina to don the green of Connacht next season.

Centurion All Black Mils Muliaina to don the green of Connacht next season.

Connacht's biggest signing of former All Black Mils Muliaina is a huge step in Connacht's growing development, insists coach Pat Lam.

Despite Munster coach Rob Penney questioning Muliaina’s value to Irish rugby, Lam believes he will have a massive impact on developing Connacht youngsters, particularly Robbie Henshaw and Darragh Leader, who are earmarked for national selection.

This week Lam has been inundated with texts and emails, including one, he says, which said: 'Jesus, you guys are on the map, well done'.

"There's a buzz. The players are looking forward to him coming here, after all they have looked up to him as a player when they were young.

"It is all positive and I think it is not totally about who he is, or what he has done, but the impact he will have for the Irish qualified boys. We were constantly putting out 13 or 14 every week - the average age about 22 - and now they have someone like Mils from whom they can learn. It will raise the standards and we will get better as a team, not just by chance, and that's what I want from the three new guys [Tom McCartney, Bundee Aki, and Muliaina]."

Muliaina, the last major signing for the province this season, is one of the key planks in moving the the province forward, but Lam insists he is not coming to Connacht to feature in every game.

"Mils is not here to play in every game, but to be part of the squad to help make the team operate better. I know what he will do with these guys - he will drive them hard because he has high expectations. He will raise everything up and support what we are doing as coaching staff."

Lam says the release of senior players such as Dan Parks, Gavin Duffy, and Frank Murphy freed up the budget to allow the province to sign the three Kiwis, without spending a penny more than last season.

"We were very clear on what we needed, a hooker and front row, was a major one, and I have a strong relationship with Tom McCartney. We needed the X-factor in our backline and there were a few options that we looked at, but some players were still under contract. I hadn't worked with Bundee, but he came from the agents, and then another area we needed to cover was the mental - and Mils wants to pass on information and be the mentor - it is not that he wants it, it is just what he does."

Lam also says Connacht has one less foreign player than last year, swapping Parks for Muliaina, Aki for James So'oialo, and McCartney for White [who becomes Irish qualified this year].

"So there were no extra allowances, no extra funding, but what we have done is our homework to fit them into our squad."

Muliaini, who is recovering from elbow surgery is due to arrive at the end of the Super 15 season - three seasons after Lam tried to persuade the centurion to rejoin his Auckland Blues side.

The two met up a couple of years ago when Muliaina was playing for the AP Barbarians, coached by Lam, in Hong Kong.

" 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 Muliaina - 100 caps for the All Blacks - it is massive.

Connacht Branch president Eamon Feeley says the capture of the province's first All Black is a declaration that Connacht is ready to move forward in its quest to achieve success both in the RaboDirect Pro 12 and European Cup competitions.

"I am absolutely thrilled for Connacht to have a player of his calibre and stature. The first All Black has been recruited to the province, and I can only see good from it," Feeley says. "It is fantastic for the province, the team, and supporters.

"It is a huge statement of intent by Connacht. This is a player whom everyone knows, and, first and foremost, people will want to come to see him play for Connacht.

"Having so many young players coming through the Academy, and with Dan Parks leaving - a player who had so much influence on the younger players - there was a void that needed to be filled and someone like Mils Muliaina will certainly do that.”

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