Friday 15 December 2017

Big-name flops costing Connacht more than cash

Muliaina a waste of money that should prompt policy rethink

Connacht's Mils Muliaina during squad training
Connacht's Mils Muliaina during squad training
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Late in the first half at a slithery and wet Kingsholm on Friday night Connacht were looking like they might slide out the back of a heavy defeat. They were giving the ball away easily and looked demoralised by it all.

This was the European Challenge Cup quarter-final, and they weren't exactly putting it up to Gloucester. Then Mils Muliaina went off, which in the circumstances seemed appropriate. A few minutes earlier he could be seen stretching and grimacing, so it was a short hop from there to an early exit.

Earlier in the week it had been announced that the All Black legend will be heading to Zebre at the end of the season. His term in the Sportsground has been short and unsuccessful, so not being able to complete what was only his 11th game since arriving in Galway was just another scene from the same script. That it would take a turn for the worse after the game was almost bizarre. Muliaina was arrested soon after the final whistle and taken away in a police van following a complaint about an alleged incident in Cardiff last month. What an exit.

As usual in a crisis - like when their last chief executive, Tom Sears, departed the scene in September 2013 - Connacht's PR machine ground to a halt. Then yesterday morning they issued a four-line statement confirming what by then everybody already knew.

"Connacht Rugby can confirm that player Mils Muliaina is currently assisting the South Wales Police with enquiries relating to an alleged incident in Cardiff in March of this year. As this is a legal matter, Connacht Rugby will be making no further statement."

There is no mention of whether or not Connacht will be supporting the player, and it is unknown if the management were aware prior to going to Gloucester that Muliaina was under investigation.

You can trace some of Connacht's current state back to that night in the Arms Park when they were denied, through awful officiating, a win they should have secured. Pointing out the injustice of that endgame in a contest Connacht thought they had won cost coach Pat Lam €3,000, a figure which started at €8,000 and had €5,000 suspended.

The result put a spanner in the works of their steady grind up the Pro12 table, where their target is to reach the European Champions Cup next season under their own steam. Currently they are on target in sixth place, level with Edinburgh on 43 points. The good news is that three of their remaining four fixtures in the Pro 12 are at home. The bad news is that three of them are against teams ranked above them: Ulster, Glasgow and Ospreys. This would remind you of the advice given to the lost tourist on a backroad in rural Ireland. 'Well I wouldn't start from here.' Pat Lam is now dealing with an uphill climb for a group who still have lots going for them - witness how they came back on Friday night to make it a stressful finish for Gloucester - but look like they are running close to empty.

This is a long way from the fanfare that greeted the triple Kiwi infusion this season of Muliaina, Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney. Of the three McCartney, one of the most accurate lineout operators on the circuit, has been good value. Aki was making decent headway in midfield before he got injured. Muilaina, however, never got out of second gear.

There were three ominous elements to his signing. The first was that 34 is pretty old for an outside back, and after 15 years in the pro game you wondered how much gas there would be in the tank. The second was that he had to rehab after an elbow operation. And the third was that he was being hired as player/mentor.

That description suggested Connacht were unsure how much he could contribute on the field. If so they were on the money.

Connacht already have an unfortunate history on the recruitment front. They evidently didn't do their homework in hiring Craig Clarke two seasons ago from the same outfit as Muliaina, the Waikato Chiefs.

Clarke was a fine player with a long history of concussions. He didn't work out. James So'oialo on the other hand had no issues in that regard but, also hired two years ago, he wanted to go back to his family after literally a couple of games.

Now, of the most recent crop, Muliaina has been a waste of money. All clubs get it wrong at some stage in this business but when you go high-profile and it ends up with a spectacularly low return then you need to examine how you conduct your business.

In the press release that informed us of Muliaina swapping the cold winds coming in off the Atlantic for the warm pastures of northern Italy, the former All Black is quoted as follows: "Joining Zebre allows me to maintain the appetite I have as a rugby player."

Whatever way you look at that statement, it doesn't add up. And the bad maths has cost Connacht more than a heap of cash.

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