All Black pedigree good for Connacht rugby
The arrival of Mils Muliaina has already set hearts racing as the Pro12 season begins
Connacht players Robbie Henshaw, former All Blacks ace Mils Muliaina and Fionn Carr model this season’s jersey, sponsored by Life Style Sports. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Already the decision of Robbie Henshaw to remain in Connacht seems justified on a number of fronts, not least with the arrival of Mils Muliaina.
Muliaina was in Galway yesterday with Henshaw and other team members, the former All Black the first player invited to sign the giant Connacht jersey on display in Eyre Square.
Pat Lam too expects Muliaina will contribute more than his skills as a running player and while his ability still sparkles, his influence on Henshaw, particularly, is expected to be on a par with Brian O’Driscoll’s influence in Leinster or Doug Howlett at Munster.
Leadership group“Mils has gone straight into our leadership group,” said Lam this week. Lam knows and understands the Mils product better than anyone in Ireland.
“He wanted time to settle in but when you have a guy who’s won 99 caps with the All Blacks and was so important with me as a leader with Auckland, it will be great to have that experience on board.
“It will be hugely important for guys like Robbie Henshaw, Darragh Leader and Jack Carty.
“He can have a significant influence. If you look elsewhere, the influence that Brad Thorn has had on Leinster, which Gordon D’Arcy has spoken about. Isa Nacewa has had a huge influence on the culture there.
“It’s been done before. I know what Mils will bring.
“That’s the beauty of me having a second year here because I knew we lacked experience out wide, especially in terms of leadership. And that’s one of the main reasons I went after him.”
Henshaw will play in the back and at outside centre, where along with Luke Fitzgerald and others he harbours ambition to inherit the Irish 13 jersey. The young player is also in a culture that has improved over the summer.
Connacht, once the unloved and unwanted province, has been embraced.
Muliaini won’t play immediately because of shoulder injury and will sit it out until the end of October. But Lam has put him straight into a mentoring role.
“I still believe he can play at the top level,” says Lam of Muliaini. “His whole role is not to be the saviour. He has a wider brief around what he can contribute. Ultimately, Connacht is an integral part of Irish rugby and it’s on a high at the moment.
Resources“The IRFU have put a lot of resources. This time I have three assistant coaches whereas last year I had only one. We have the facilities and the staff. That’s why they signed Mils off, they know that the investment is worth it in terms of what he can do for our young Irish players.”
Already there is optimism around the Sportsground and doubtlessly Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will be less concerned now that Lam’s thinking is driven as much by nurture as winning matches.
“But ultimately it’s a results business. Lam knows he’s in a dog fight with the other Irish provinces too.
“If we can over-achieve, that’s massive for the organisation,” he says. “We want to be attracting more Irish players to our club so one day we’re up there with the other three and then go further beyond that.”
Muliaini in Eyre Square is a decent start.