Muliaina signing a bold statement of intent
It is a marquee signing at a time when when the privately-backed big French and English clubs are moving into a different financial sphere
The signing of Mils Muliaina from the Waikato Chiefs is a clear statement of intent, not only by Connacht themselves, but by the IRFU. Photograph: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images
Ever since the IRFU proposed shutting them down as a professional entity 11 years ago, Connacht have been a tad paranoid about the governing body’s intentions and, as with referees, have had good reason to be. Yet the signing of Mils Muliaina from the Waikato Chiefs is a clear statement of intent, not only by the province themselves, but by the IRFU.
The capture of Muliaina would have reverberated around the rugby world yesterday. It is a marquee signing at a time in the professional game when the privately-backed French and English clubs are moving into a different financial sphere.
As with the signing of the Chiefs’ two-time Super 15 winning captain Craig Clarke a year ago, and indeed a third Chiefs player in centre, Bundee Aki, not only are Connacht making a statement about their ambitions to break into the top six of the Pro12 and qualify for the European Rugby Champions Cup under their own steam, but clearly they are being backed financially by the Union more handsomely than ever before.
Clearly Pat Lam also has some good contacts around Waikato but in any event, according to well-placed sources, Aki (who scored a sharply taken try off the bench in the Chiefs’ 38-8 win over the Lions on Saturday) was wanted by Leinster and Munster as well, but Connacht outbid them for the 24-year-old’s services.
At 33, Muliaina may not be the force of old, but his knowledge and winning mentality will be invaluable amid so much talent and young backs.
As Lam has identified a lack of experience as a key factor in them losing seven league matches by a score, and with the retirement of Gavin Duffy (a true legend of Connacht rugby) as well as Frank Murphy and Dan Parks being released, the ex-All Black fullback will clearly be a mentor for Robbie Henshaw and Darragh Leader, and perhaps even move into a coaching role.
In allowing Henshaw to concentrate on his development as an outside centre, it is also the clearest signal yet Connacht have no intention of releasing their academy product from the legally binding two-year contract he has signed with the province, despite what the IRFU president may have said recently.
The next step for the Union must be appointing a new CEO for the province.
Meanwhile, over in France, for the fifth season since the Top 14 play-offs were expanded from the leading four to the top six clubs, Racing Metro are in the play-offs, but for the fourth time they have finished fifth or sixth, thus directing them to an away tie in the barrage.
A clearly frustrated Johnny Sexton scored all their points in a 44-10 defeat away to Montpellier on Saturday which, coupled with Toulouse’s bonus point win at home to the Grenoble of Bernard Jackman and Jack Hearty (who survived relegation regardless), means Toulouse (seeking a 21st semi-final in a row) edge above Racing on their head-to-head and thus have home advantage next Friday night.
The odds on Sexton’s Racing thus winning their first Bouclier de Brennus since 1990 have receded. No club which has earned an away tie in the barrage has ever lifted the trophy, although Montpellier did reach the final after finishing sixth in 2010-11.
Racing themselves have lost away to Clermont (2010), away to Toulon (2012) and 33-19 away to Toulouse last season at this stage, and despite finishing second three seasons ago lost 26-25 to Montpellier in the semi-finals.
Clermont host Castres on Saturday afternoon, with Toulon and Montpellier awaiting in the semi-finals after earning a week’s rest by finishing in the top two.
Stade Français finished seventh to earn a play-off with the seventh-place finishers in the Premiership for a place in the Champions Cup, while Perpignan’s 103-year stay in France’s top flight ended after a brave 25-22 defeat away to Clermont (their 77th home win in a row helped by three yellow cards to Perpignan in the last quarter).
All told, 12 of the day’s 16 yellow cards in the seven home wins were brandished to away players, albeit with one red card to a home team player.
True to type of a country that likes to do things their way, whereas every other rugby playing country has slavishly adopted the Super Rugby bonus points scoring system the Top 14 only awards an offensive bonus point to a winning team which scores at least three tries more than their opponents.
This system means a losing team cannot earn two bonus points, as the offensive bonus point can only be earned by the winning team in France, and neither team can earn a bonus point in a drawn match. From next season, losing bonus points will only be granted to teams which lose by five points or less, rather than seven.
Too often in France, a losing team (usually away) is nine or ten points down entering the last stages and are awarded a penalty (usually a rare one on the day) to earn the consolation of a losing point by getting within six or seven points of the winners. Certainly a team which loses by five points or less is worthier of a bonus point than one which loses by six or seven.
All in all, bonus points are a little harder to earn in France and it is probably a more equitable system as well.