Mils Muliaina needs to deliver as Connacht face daunting task
Fullback returns after injury-broken season for Challenge Cup quarter-final
Mils Muliaina’s Connacht salary could have covered the cost of an astonishing 60 academy players. Photograph: Craig Thomas/Inpho
This needs to be the night Mils Muliaina rolls back the years. It could easily be the night his buckled wheels roll into the category of yet another imported rugby legend punctured by faded greatness.
That’s the high standard expected of a centurion All Black, above all because he commands a salary, supplemented by the IRFU, which could have covered the cost of a mere 60 academy players.
Either way, after an injury-broken season Muliaina leaves for Zebre this summer.
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Dave McSharry’s unavailability further weakens midfield stocks but Robbie Henshaw’s timely return will lend a touch of class. And power.
“He’s nice and refreshed, he got a couple of days off and I’m sure he badly needed it, mentally and physically,” said captain John Muldoon.
“He’s a massive player for Connacht rugby, he’s done outstandingly well for Ireland over the last couple of weeks and he’ll bring a huge boost to us coming back. Robbie is Robbie, he’ll fit right back in.”
Both teams come off the back of disappointing, comprehensive defeats to Sale (23-6) and Munster (42-20).
“It is a huge game for the club and if we want to win it and progress in the tournament we will have to bring our own physicality to the game,” said Gloucester director of rugby David Humphreys.
“We’ve known for a while the European campaign was something we could take away with us from this season.”
Brendan Macken, on loan from Leinster, doesn’t make the squad but Humphreys has loaded his ranks with Six Nations returnees. Winger Jonny May, scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw and hooker Richard Hibbard all add quality that Connacht will struggle to match. There is also John Afoa and James Hook at outhalf to consider as a tortuous night is promised for Connacht who cannot have the same interest in this tournament as Gloucester.
Considering Gloucester are barely clear of relegation trouble, winning the Challenge Cup is their best route into Europe’s top tier.
Whatever team from the Premiership, Top 14 and Pro 12 wins the Challenge Cup, will replace the seventh-placed team in their league in playoffs with the seventh-placed teams in the other two leagues. This could well see Gloucester meet Connacht again giving this game double value. Sort of.
Not that Connacht will wilt entirely but Gloucester look far too strong.
GLOUCESTER: S McColl; C Sharples, B Meakes, B Twelvetrees (capt), J May; J Hook, G Laidlaw; D Murphy, R Hibbard, J Afoa; T Savage, T Palmer; S Kalamafoni, M Kvesic, G Evans.
Replacements: D Dawidiuk, N Wood, S Puafisi, J Hudson, R Moriarty, D Robson, B Burns, H Purdy.
CONNACHT: M Muliaina; T O’Halloran, D Poolman, R Henshaw, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCarthy, R Ah You; Q Roux, A Muldowney; A Browne, E Masterson, J Muldoon (capt).
Replacements: S Delahunt, JP Cooney, F Bealham, M Kearney, J Connolly, I Porter, C Ronaldson, D Leader.
Referee: M Raynal (France).