Sunday 15 December 2019

Muliaina deal can pave way for more marquee names out west

Mils Muliaina of the Chiefs makes a run during the round three Super Rugby match between the Chiefs and the Highlanders at Waikato Stadium on March 1, 2014
Mils Muliaina of the Chiefs makes a run during the round three Super Rugby match between the Chiefs and the Highlanders at Waikato Stadium on March 1, 2014
Connacht head coach Pat Lam
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

WHEN Connacht are being discussed during the live coverage of New Zealand's equivalent of Leinster v Munster, you know they are making bigger waves than usual.

And that was before they announced by far the biggest transfer coup in their history when confirming that All Black centurion Mils Muliaina would be plying his trade in Galway next season.

The signing of Bundee Aki made an impact, with 'special project' players coming up during the commentary of the Chiefs' meeting with the Crusaders, but attracting a player who just this week was named in the New Zealand Herald's 100 greatest All Blacks is another step up again.

When the press release announcing the signing arrived yesterday morning, it merited a second look, just to make sure it was real. Players of Muliaina's pedigree don't normally pitch up at the Sportsground's home-dressing room.

Pat Lam's first season in charge may have fluctuated wildly between highs like the win in Toulouse and lows like last Saturday's home collapse to Cardiff Blues, but you can't doubt his ability to woo top-class talent to his outpost of European rugby.

Exempt from the IRFU's rules on Non-Irish Eligible players, the Westerners have assembled a collection of Kiwis that ranges from gnarled experience in Craig Clarke and Nathan White to young Ireland prospects like Jake Heenan, Rodney Ah You and Aki.

Muliaina is different. He'll be 34 by the time he arrives, but he is still turning in quality performances in Super Rugby after a spell in Japan.

Fifth on the list of most capped All Blacks with 100 appearances, he scored 34 tries for his country and finished with a World Cup medal, playing twice in their 2011 campaign.

"I went down to New Zealand in January just to sell the vision of Connacht to the key people and agents, because I knew from when I was back there it was all about Ulster, Leinster and Munster," Lam said.

"So I went down there and did a few presentations around where Connacht is, where it has come from and where it wants to go and on the back of that, it was very positive."

The backing the province are receiving from the IRFU is greater than ever, but Lam insists his playing budget has remained static from last season despite the outlay on Muliaina.

Thxxe full-back may not be at the peak of his powers, but players of his ilk have had big impacts on the development of professional set-ups in all of the other provinces, from Jim Williams, John Langford and Doug Howlett at Munster to Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller at Ulster.

Gordon D'Arcy has played against Muliaina three times for Ireland and is in no doubt as to the impact he can have.

"It's what you want to have, the best players coming and bringing the standard up across the board," he said yesterday.

"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 then it will be fantastic for the squad and for certain individuals."

Still, Connacht's greatest issue remains convincing young Irish players to make the move west from their own academies.

Earlier this season, Lam heavily criticised members of British & Irish Cup squads who are happy to bide their time in provincial academies rather than move for increased game time, but the floodgates have yet to open and it will be a job for David Nucifora when he gets his feet under the desk.

As befits a player of his status and, it shouldn't be ignored, salary, Muliaina will be expected to take on a mentorship role.

In the quotes included in yesterday's press release, the All Black name-checked Robbie Henshaw, but his presence will also help fellow backs Daragh Leader, Jack Carty and Craig Ronaldson, who have all impressed this season.

On the flip side, Muliaina's presence will block Leader's path, and the number of frontline foreign players will limit the opportunities for local players.

But it is hard not to get excited by such a marquee signing, and season ticket sales should get a boost. When Lam goes back to New Zealand to sell the Connacht brand, he'll have less trouble gaining recognition.

This signing puts them on the map. Finding their way upwards from here is the next challenge.

Irish Independent

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