Back home to the good life

 

The life of a rugby professional. Mike Mullins emerges from the dressing-room at about 3.30 on Wednesday in Thomond Park, and heads back to his rented house just off the Dublin road. He pours a tall glass of orange, sits down in the livingroom with his wife, Francine, and daughter, Cherelle. The rest of the day is his and theirs, and, hemmed in by a high wall, the old, stylishly converted house feels serene and calm. It seems like a good life.

Contracted to Munster, Mullins will "if selected" make his league debut next Saturday for Young Munster, his father's home parish. The move to Limerick has opened a new chapter for the family. Aside from the rugby earning him a tilt at a World Cup and now a European Cup, they've also embraced a new culture and Mullins' extended family.

Training at the university is an eight-minute walk away, as is Milford, Cherelle's school. Francine is starting up a New Zealand holistic practice, reike, at their home. They rarely drink, the house is very "chilled", as they describe it, and they dress in a casual, somewhat Bohemian way. Curiously, the living-room already has a Christmas tree, which is to atone for last year's Christmas spent apart, a reminder that their lot hasn't always been this serene.

Two years ago, when Mullins first came to play in the Northern Hemisphere for Waterloo, Francine found the transition difficult and couldn't settle. When Mullins returned the next season, contractual problems developed at the club, and one of the benefits which was cut was a travel allowance, which stymied plans for his wife and daughter to rejoin him in England.

Then, when Mullins' proposed move to West Hartlepool hit a snag (Waterloo insisted on a £3,000 transfer fee, which Mullins ultimately had to pay himself), plans for Francine and Cherelle to join him in England were again disrupted.

Last December they agreed, for financial reasons, that Mullins would remain in England on his own for the rest of the season, and their time apart was extended to 10 months due to further contractual problems at West Hartlepool and by his elevation to the Irish squad and the tour to Australia.

"It was hard," admits Mullins, as Francine nods. "We sort of got through it. In England I used to socialise and drink a lot. Over the 10 months I cut down my drinking, but I still had a few nights where I probably shouldn't have drunk at all. But we kept in touch once a week by phone and time flew by.

"Before we knew it, I was home again and it was just straight back into our normal routine and it was sort of like I'd never really left. But there were probably a couple of times when we thought we wouldn't be together again," he admits.

"Mmm," says Francine, smiling in agreement once more. "It was tough. It's not something I'd recommend, that a long-distance relationship makes the heart grow fonder. I don't know who made that one up."

Initially though, even Mullins' proposed move to Connacht and Ireland briefly fell through, and there was a more remunerative offer to join La Rochelle in France, complete with climate-friendly home by the coast and an English-speaking school for Cherelle.

Instead, he secured a provincial contract with Munster, with the additional carrot being his international ambitions. Not surprisingly, he informed Francine of the move to Ireland "after" the deal had been struck.

"I thought, `He needs his head examined, there's something going on over there'," Francine says. But as it has turned out, no regrets. "We came on the basis that this was a long-term move for us."

It's worked out well. The knowledgeable Limerick crowds have clearly taken to him judging by the buzz when he gets the ball. He's not cut from the same cloth as Rhys Ellison, though he augments his explosiveness and strength with deceptive speed off the mark and an ability to create gaps and offload in the tackle.

Alan Quinlan and Peter Clohessy had been quick to befriend him in the Irish A and senior set-ups, and, as a family, they've been struck by the hospitality afforded to them.

"Rugby-wise it's good because we're winning. The guys give me a bit of stick because I was meant to go to Connacht, but as things turned out I ended up with Munster, by chance I suppose, after the Connacht thing fell through. Munster were then first off the blocks and this is where my father came from. He said there was no way I was going to play for anybody else."

The Mullins had been a handball family, and one of his uncles won three All-Irelands in one year, at 16s, 19s and seniors. His father, Thomas, was a labourer who emigrated to New Zealand 24 years ago, and has been back only three times.

The family - Mike, his brother Martin and his mother, Sharon, who is half-Irish - lived in Dargaville, a small, rural area in the north of the north island. "My father didn't have any education, so he couldn't read or write as such, and was a general labourer."

His father has since become a caretaker of a high school, and runs a contract cleaning company with his wife. New Zealand ultimately gave the Mullins a life Ireland could never have done.

His family stay in touch every week, and his parents continue to follow his career closely. It was always thus.

"He had two sons playing rugby, travelling the whole country, and he followed us around. If we ever wanted something to play rugby, such as a new pair of boots, we always had them. He only played once in his life, he says for about five minutes. It was a family affair and I think he was drunk at the time. But he always watched us and like everyone else has become a critic."

Mullins learnt his rugby at the local Catholic school, St Joseph's, and progressed through the under-age ranks of North Harbour. "I was always making the team through the grades, but I was never the star player as such."

Opportunities at senior level were then limited by the presence of Walter Little and Frank Bunce, not to mention Eric Rush and Glenn Osborne.

Limited to about 20 games for North Harbour, he became "pretty sick of it". A part-time labourer, the time devoted to rugby was costing the family money, and so he sent his cv to an agent. Two months after their marriage, he jumped at an offer from Waterloo.

"The money was good and my wife thought it was something that I needed to get out of my system. She thought I'd just come home and generally play rugby at home and retire, because at that time I had talked about retiring."

MIKE BREWER, now relocated to Italian club side L'Aquilla, had wanted to sign Mullins at West Hartlepool for some time before. "I remembered playing against him when he was at Waterloo and he basically beat us on his own," Brewer says. "I had my eye on him for about a year after that." "He's very powerful and quick off the mark, and he's also a good professional, which there's not a lot of, to be honest," Brewer adds with a sardonic chuckle.

"As far as his playing potential, in my honest opinion I think he's a lot of ability. He reads the game well," adds Brewer, who reveals that Mullins "was the only player in our squad (at West Hartlepool) who could beat five seconds for 40 metres off a standing start."

That Mullins has a tendency to miss tackles is his biggest weakness. It was something Ulster clearly targeted in the province's first meeting this season, and Brewer himself had worked on this flaw in Mullins' game.

"He tends not to trust his defence inside him, and tends to turn in instead of pushing up and out, and I warned him that he'd get skinned alive if he did that against Australia, who make the passes in front of the defender. It's something that he needs to work on. He's not old, and he's not young, but everyone still needs to learn at that level, but I would have thought he's the right type of guy to have around the boy O'Driscoll."

At the very least, Brewer would regard Mullins as potentially a very good Irish squad member, with that defensive flaw the only check on Mullins' commanding a first-choice place in the Test lineup. Mullins readily agrees that his tackling has been flawed and needs to be worked on. Francine, "my biggest critic", agrees too.

Fellow Scorpions, they have matching tattoos on their arms. Mullins then displays the two huge scorpions he has tattooed on his back, and reckons he'll eventually have his back covered.

They attribute their phlegmatic approach to reike, hence Mullins' ability to put the Lens experience behind him quicker than other players, even if he admits it was the worst dressing-room he'd ever experienced after a game.

"If things aren't within your control there's no use in carrying that baggage with you. It won't make you better. There's no use in carrying that downer within you two months down the track.

"The harsh reality is we didn't make it, so why look back and think of what might have been, when my goal was to play for Munster the next Friday night? Someone's gotta lose and I knew it wasn't going to be Munster."

Onward and forward, no looking back. The Mullins motto.