Former All Black Mils Muliaina will captain Connacht in their final push for a European Challenge Cup quarter-final place when they face La Rochelle in France this evening.
With regular captain John Muldoon on the bench, Pat Lam has asked the All Black centurion to lead Connacht into this final Pool 2 fixture knowing that while a win could see them through as one of three runners-up, a four-try bonus point victory would guarantee a home quarter-final.
“Mils is quite a key person for us tomorrow. He’s been through it before, but it’s even more important tomorrow with quite a young group going out there,” said Lam.
“I asked him if he wanted to do the job and he said it was a real honour for him. There is no doubt he will lead from the front.”
Connacht overcame this evening’s opponents in round one with a comfortable 48-12 win at the Sportsground, but Lam knows the Top 14 side will be a stiffer proposition at home.
“All French teams are different at home, which is why the Bayonne game was massive. The mindset is we are playing the best La Rochelle team, a fired-up La Rochelle team, which means our control of the game in the way we apply pressure will be crucial, and, if we get it (possession) for longer periods of time and step up our defence, we have a great chance. The bottom line is we just have to get a job done.”
Muliaina’s experience is all the more necessary in a backline missing four regular centres, including injured stars Robbie Henshaw and Bundi Aki.
As a result, Danie Poolman moves to outside centre, partnering Buccaneers’ Conor Finn, who played in the away win over Bayonne.
Up front, the return of prop Nathan White for his first match since the Challenge Cup fixture against Exeter in October is a bonus for a pack that sees Ronan Loughney named at loosehead. Andrew Browne partners Quinn Roux in the second row, while Eoin McKeon takes over on the blindside, with George Naoupu at No 8.
“With 10 games on the trot and the last five against big packs, we felt it important to bring in fresh legs up front against another big, physical forward pack in La Rochelle,” explained Lam.
“We know we have one more game, it’s one final push before the guys get a break.”
La Rochelle, with a big game in the Top 14 against Clermont Auvergne next weekend, have just one win over Bayonne in this season’s Challenge Cup. They will put up stern resistance, but Connacht have more to gain.