Former All Black centurion Mils Muliaina, who captained Connacht for the first time at the weekend, has applauded the attitude of his new teammates.
“The belief and character within this group of men is just fantastic and something I am enjoying,” he says.
Proud to lead Pat Lam's side in the final European pool fixture, Muliaina was delighted with Connacht’s defensive efforts against La Rochelle.
"It shows a lot of character and real belief within the Connacht guys. You can't train a lot of that. It shows the will to have your mates' backs, dig deep, and make sure your lines are not breached.
“There were a couple of moments when La Rochelle broke and we scrambled really well, got the ball back and got ourselves out of trouble. It just goes to show the hard work we are putting in on the training pitch is reflected in the way we play, and I was certainly delighted with the way the guys defended.”
If Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy stole the limelight with their two late tries, Muliaina said the forwards had kickstarted the second-half comeback with Eoin McKeon’s try from a penalty kicked to touch.
“ A big pat on the back to the forwards for getting us back into the match. The forwards train moves like that so it’s always nice when you can implement something from the training pitch and it comes off.”
Muliaina said he was also helped in his role when regular captain John Muldoon was introduced earlier than expected due to injury to openside Willie Faloon, in addition to hooker Tom McCartney and Nathan White.
" Muldoon got a bit of rhythm back in the forwards, and having Tom McCartney and Whitey there when we were struggling a little bit in the first half with the scrums, which is something out of my expertise, helped.
"It is a proud moment any time you captain a side, but I suppose coming from New Zealand, it was a little bit different - even the coin toss and travelling over here on a charter flight and then returning straight after the game is a bit different. And when you win, it makes that trip to Galway all that bit easier.
"It was a really good experience. It's nice to get back here in France, but when the home crowd gets behind them, and they start all the drumming and noise, that is something you don't experience back home in New Zealand.”
The former All Black legend, who wants to help build a legacy in Connacht “over a few years”, had flashbacks of his encounters with France while playing for the All Blacks.
"There were times when I was thinking 'oh man, I have been in All Black sides when things weren't going well, when you haven't had your hands on the ball, the clock is ticking, and all of a sudden you have lost the game. There certainly was a little bit of that again, but fortunately we had a couple of x-factor players who finished the job.
" But there is another thing, one I never thought about with the All Blacks, and that is a growing belief in this squad that we can win close games and close them out, and we did that."