The All Black legend will join Pro12 side Zebre to help the Italian franchise during World Cup year.
The capture of 34-year-old Muliaina — Connacht’s biggest signing when he joined Pat Lam’s squad this season from the Chiefs — was seen as a signal of Connacht’s ambitions.
Although recovering from an elbow injury for the first two months, Muliaina became a mentor for Connacht’s youngsters before making his first start in November, ironically against his new club. He has played 10 matches, captained the side to victory in the final Challenge Cup pool fixture against La Rochelle, and while unable to recapture his All Black form, he delivered much-needed experience to Connacht’s young backline.
Lam, in paying tribute to his former Blues fullback, says Muliaina was brought in for one year “to deliver on a lot of different levels, not just on the field”.
“When you look at the young guys that have come on so much this year — Darragh Leader, Jack Carty, Tiernan O’Halloran, Matt Healy, Craig Ronaldson — he has had a really big impact with these players and their development.
“We spoke a lot last season about having the ability to challenge each other in every aspect of our environment and Mils was able to lead in that area so naturally. I’m delighted I got to work with him again and I know Zebre will benefit greatly from his experience and talent.”
Lam said Muliaina had embraced the Connacht culture, and the community.
“On behalf of everyone, I’d like to thank Mils and wish him all the best in Italy and with Zebre.”
Zebre’s team manager Andrea De Rossi said Muliaina’s experience would be important in the absence of the club’s internationals next season.
“In a World Cup year it is more important to try to build a team where an adequate standard of competitiveness is guaranteed when international players are not available for the club. His immense experience across the back line will be a significant contributor to the growth of many young players in our squad.”
Muliaina is expected to feature in tomorrow evening’s European quarter-final as Connacht seek to advance to their first semi-final since 2009/10, when they lost to Toulon by 12-19.
Despite those past defeats and near misses, Connacht captain John Muldoon still has his sights on the main prize. Although opponents Gloucester are title favourites and No 1 seeds, Muldoon believes Connacht are in much better place than they have ever been at the knockout stages.
“It’s not too often you sit here at the start of April in the top six of the league and in a quarter-final with a potential home semi-final. It is exciting times for us,” he says.
“We want to do well in this competition. From the outset our goal was to qualify and when you are in a quarter-final and you get a sniff of silverware, you don’t want to give it up easily. Yes, we have a tough draw against the form team, but have nothing to fear. It’s a knockout competition we all love, anything can happen.”
However the veteran of more than 200 caps and several European quarter-finals is still haunted by past defeats, one in particular at Kingsholm three seasons ago. After 15 years of playing Challenge Cup rugby, Connacht finally made their entry into the elite competition courtesy of Leinster’s title win the previous season. But on a run of nine defeats, including two narrow losses to Harlequins away and Gloucester at home, Connacht headed to Kingsholm desperate for a win. They led 13-10 at the break courtesy of a Tiernan O’Halloran try, and leading 19-16, they finally appeared to have dug themselves out of that losing hole when heartbreakingly, four minutes from time, replacement Jonny May escaped a tackle and swept over the line.
It is a defeat that still rankles.
“I caught the end of the West’s Awake recently and it happened to be on that clip. I had to turn it off, it still frustrates me,” says Muldoon. “I think the time, the circumstances, and the emotion, to be so near and to have to go on for another three games without a win, it felt the world was on our shoulders. Every time we thought we had a win, something would come along and take the ladder from underneath us.”
A handful of starters that day, Muldoon, Ronan Loughney, O’Halloran, Dave McSharry, and George Naopupu remain, while youngsters Denis Buckley, Rodney Ah You, Mick Kearney and Eoin McKeon, who were on the bench, have matured considerably.
“Yes, some of us will look back at the Gloucester game and think we could have and should have got the win, but things have moved on quite a bit. We were desperate then to get a win; this time we are going with greater confidence, that and the fact that we have been over there before and did quite well, and coming on the back of a successful year.”
Muldoon remains wary of Gloucester’s talent if Connacht are not up to speed. “We are travelling to a stronghold of English rugby over the last couple of years, and while their form has been somewhat up and down, they have a big pack and a devastating back three with pace. They are very dangerous players, if you give them an inch, they will literally take a mile, but at the same time they are beatable.”
The Challenge Cup has often brought out the best in Connacht, but the ultimate prize has always eluded them. “We have had some good battles over the years in the Challenge Cup, but we’ve no silverware to show. Certainly I have never done it as part of a Connacht team. It would be nice to get some silverware, and we are in a good position at this stage of the season. When you look at the other teams, the dynamics of the draw, and you look at what we can do, this is probably the most confident we have been, going into a quarter-final.”