The All Blacks legend may have been brought to Ireland by head coach Pat Lam to mentor the province’s impressive array of exciting young backs but not even 100 Test caps could prepare Muliaina for Connacht’s lip-syncing boy band night.
“He’d only been here two days but he joined in with his group,” Lam said of the new arrival. “He’s a real team man and loves being involved in our team and when I looked over at our team challenge, he’s up there singing with Darragh Leader and Robbie Henshaw.”
It was an eye-opener for Muliaina, 34, who nevertheless approached the challenge with gusto.
“I tell you what, our team won,” he said, laughing. “Even things like that, to come here and see guys get involved... in New Zealand, guys wouldn’t really get into it but here I was surprised how well they embraced it. The boys just got up there and did it and it’s good for team bonding and culture. I was really impressed by that, although I wasn’t really impressed by some of the dancing! But I’m sure we can get it right by the end of the year.”
Kieran Marmion, Leader, Henshaw. Muliaina heard all about the new crop of talent emerging in the province as his former Auckland boss Lam waxed lyrical during their many conversations last season, when the Connacht coach persuaded him to join.
“They’ve lived up to the billing and then some,” Muliaina said. “We’re probably a little bit arrogant back home in New Zealand, we don’t realise some of the talent that is around, globally, and when Pat mentioned some of the things that are going on here, and I knew of Robbie, it’s certainly exceeded expectations, seeing the way they train and play. I’m looking forward to some good things throughout this season.”
The high expectations concerning Muliaina did not hit home until the Samoan-born star landed in Galway to start his one-year contract and was greeted with his picture adorning billboards selling season tickets.
“I don’t know about being on billboards, I was a little bit taken aback by it,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got here that I realised it was such a big deal. In New Zealand signing for someone isn’t really that big.
“But I certainly do appreciate the welcome, it’s been pretty amazing. I’m loving it. I’m being really welcomed here, the people are fantastic and it’s a great place.”
So much has been made of Muliaina’s mentoring role at Connacht that it is easy to forget he is here to play as well, although it will be eight weeks before supporters will see the full-back in action as he completes his rehabilitation from an elbow injury. Playing is still what he is all about, three years on from his 100th and final All Blacks cap in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina.
Two seasons in Japan followed by a stint with the Chiefs have been hampered by injury, Muliaina rushing back from a torn elbow tendon and in the process prolonging his spell on the sidelines.
So when Muliaina, lesson learned, is fit and ready to go, what is he going to bring to this Connacht team?
“The obvious thing is experience,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of the way the guys play here and given them a little bit of feedback in terms of what they can do to make it a little bit easier than the way they’re doing it.
“They try really hard in some of the lines that they run and they can probably do a little bit better. In terms of me as a player I’ve got some experience so that I can do that but also, because of the young backs, I just think being around there and showing a little bit of solidity in tough times. I can help them through that and talk to them and make sure they are making good decisions. That’s something I’ve prided myself on, making good decisions, being in the right place at the right time, both defensively and in attack. I do still believe I’ve got those attributes but also help in giving that knowledge to the guys here. I didn’t realise how young some of these guys are until I got here. It’s amazing to think how talented they are. They’re really good athletes from what I’ve seen, they give 100% and so while I’m not ready to play, my mentoring role is just to help them out with all those wee things.
“But you’re right, I’m dead keen to get out there and play. I am really competitive and I wouldn’t have signed this contract if I was going to come here to make up the numbers and just be a mentor. I want to go out there and play and compete. I’ve always thought that the best way to be a leader is to lead by example and you can’t lead by example if you’re sitting in the stands.”
Muliaina will have to do just that a while longer, including today, when Connacht open their Guinness Pro12 campaign against the Dragons in Galway (5pm) with a backline whose average age is a little over 23 years. Full-back Shane Layden, 21, makes his first Connacht start after an injury-hit three years since his 2011 bow, while there are debuts for wing Niyi Adeolokun, scrum-half Ian Porter and on-loan Leinster lock Quinn Roux.
*Mils Muliaina is an ambassador for Mazda, official car supplier to Connacht Rugby.
CONNACHT: S Layden; N Adeolokun, D Leader, D McSharry, D Poolman; J Carty, I Porter; D Buckley, D Heffernan, N White; M Kearney, Q Roux; J Muldoon – captain, J Heenan, E McKeon.
Replacements: S Henry, F Bealham, R Ah You, G Naoupu, W Faloon, K Marmion, M Nikora, C Finn.
DRAGONS: L Byrne – captain; T Prydie, T Morgan, J Dixon, A Brew; J Tovey, J Evans; B Stankovich, E Dee, L Fairbrother; A Coombs, R Landman; L Evans, N Cudd, A Powell.
Replacements: T. Rhys Thomas, O Evans, D Way, I Gough, T Faletau, D Jones, G Rhys Jones, B Nightingale.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy).