How Mils Muliaina’s Ireland adventure turned into a nightmare
All Black still coming to terms with being arrested and accused of sexual assault
Mils Muliaina pictured in Parma recently after moving from Connacht to Zebre at the beginning of the season.
Mils Muliaina in action for Zebre against Ulster in March. Photograph: Brian Little/Presseye/Inpho
A season of salvation.
The smile has returned to Mils Muliaina’s face, reflecting the space he is in after a season in the Italian sun.
Finally laying to rest his much publicised arrest and subsequent clearance for an alleged sexual assault in Cardiff in 2015, Muliaina is now heading in a new direction, made possible by the healing salve of a season in Parma.
Signing for the lowly Pro12 Italian side Zebre may have appeared an unusual decision for the much-celebrated All Black centurion, but he says it has been the best move after a traumatic end to his first overseas contract in Ireland.
Muliaina had signed for the Parma-based side prior to his shock arrest in Gloucester, a month after the alleged incident in the Welsh capital.
“My whole mentality at the time when getting out of the Cardiff police station was: ‘Yes, I was arrested, but I am not allowed to talk about it, so how is this new club going to react?’ I honestly thought that was going to be it – my career, my rugby could be over – but they were absolutely fantastic.
“The club only knew this person who was a former All Black, who played in Ireland. They didn’t have to believe what took place, there was no reason why they should believe it, apart form my word, and they chose to, and that is why when I came to Italy I wanted to give back to them.
“I have taken a totally different step into this,” the 35-year-old says. “I came to Italy with an open mind, have tried to enjoy life, and be happy again. I have learned the language, and taken a step back from rugby – in not having the pressure of rugby sort of hold me down.”
Life has been good in the Emilia-Romagna region. Muliaina and his partner have immersed themselves in the Italian way of life, with language classes twice a week, and living in the upstairs of a renovated pool house on a farm estate in a small rural village outside Parma.
And, on the field, Muliaina has come to accept that his body can no longer reach the heights of his All Black heyday and is focusing on a different future.
However, he still struggles to come to terms with the past, and remains both angry and frustrated at his publicly televised arrest for a sexual assault charge that took six months of his life.
The accusation, which eventually was revealed as a hand on a women’s clothed bottom, was played out in full glare of the media, and he remains at a loss to understand why he was charged in the first place. No video evidence was supplied and no witness statements identified him as the person who was allegedly involved.
“While I have moved on and I don’t want to go back there, every now and again I do, and it still hurts. I would be lying if I said it doesn’t still hurt the way it happened, and I haven’t really been able to talk about it.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to go through the pain and frustration which I went through, the pain it caused, and what my family had to go through, particularly my son Max.”
Muliaina recalls that evening in Gloucester when his nightmare started. Playing for Connacht in a European quarter-final, he had been taken off just before half-time with a hamstring injury, and was confronted by police en route to the dressing room.
“That week I had been sick and was taking an inhaler, so I had to sign a few papers, and I thought to myself, ‘trust my luck, I’ll be drug tested’. When the police came over to me – there were about five or six – and read something out, it went straight over my head and I laughed. I thought some of the lads were playing a practical joke on me.
“That was it. I was still in my gear and lucky our kit man Martin Joyce was there because he grabbed a polo and jeans for me, thinking I’d be back in no time.”
Instead Muliaina was escorted in front of waiting television cameras to a police van, taken to Gloucester police station, put in the back of a paddy wagon and driven to Cardiff – the scene of the alleged incident some four weeks earlier.
“It was surreal. I didn’t really know what was happening. We arrived in Cardiff about 1am and I was processed and put in a cell until 4pm the next day when eventually my solicitor was allowed to meet me.”
Connacht Rugby had been advised before the game that police wanted to speak to him about an incident. Police rejected Connacht’s offer to drive Muliaina to Cardiff immediately after the game, but the club opted to keep it quiet from the player.
“I can understand possibly why, for a club that is relatively new to things like that, they were a little bit naive how things could pan out. I know they wanted me to concentrate on the game, but it would have been better going into the match knowing something possible could happen, or the possibility of being able to stop the visual from happening.
“I don’t understand why they [the police] didn’t talk to me before that, and for the cameras to be there when I came out, there are never cameras there. No doubt they were told ‘let’s have this blimming big show’.
“I just don’t understand how people can do that. And for a police officer, who I don’t know, to make a decision like that – one that can change a person’s life – is unbelievable. And then when it’s all over, we just go our merry way.”
The drawn-out process would take some six months, during which time Muliaina finished his contract in Connacht – he would never play again for the club – returned to New Zealand to visit family, and then moved to Italy.
“You just don’t know what to think when you are sitting in a cell. You wonder what is going to happen to your life. It [the charge] was always going to be perceived as something more serious than what I was accused of, and for six months I couldn’t talk to anyone, explain what the accusation was.
“The way I was treated considering what the accusation was, the way it was played out on live television, and also particularly the way things happened back home – it was breaking news in New Zealand – it just seemed to get worse and worse, and they prolonged it even more, right to the very end. When it is your whole life, and you are trying to battle financially and emotionally, it’s really hard.
“You cannot go back and try to get retribution, there is no system that allows you to do that, the only thing you can do is lay a formal complaint.”
Still waiting for a response, Muliaina’s lawyer has filed a complaint. “At best you get a sorry, but that’s all you can ask for. It’s a real sucky system, truly unfair, but it is what it is, and you try to move on as best you can.
“Mum kept ringing and saying it was fine, but I knew they were struggling. There were times I felt entirely alone. You try to put a brave face on, and then you go home where the barrier comes down, and you wake up in the morning, and think, Jeez, has anyone got my back on this, what is going to happen?
“If I am totally honest, I wanted the season to end. I just wanted to curl up somewhere where I was anonymous and sit there and not worry about anything, but I knew I had try to have some normality in my life.
“I was in Ireland, but at home there were journalists constantly knocking on the door at my son’s house, ringing neighbours at my parents’ house, telephoning every day, and waiting with cameras. I was very protected over here, but my son wasn’t at all, he wasn’t protected, and that is what hurt the most.”
In contrast to the hoopla that greeted Muliaina when he arrived in Ireland as Connacht’s first All Black and most high-profile signing, he left the west of Ireland quietly.
“Playing-wise was not a great time in Galway. I would have loved to have been a lot better there, but going from one injury to another and the different style of game they play, I gained five kilograms and I struggled with that. But I really did want to give something back, and hopefully I did in terms of my experience and the voice that I did give, but it certainly didn’t finish as I would have loved.”
Returning home to New Zealand was bittersweet, realising what his family had been forced to endure the controversy, particularly his son. “I had to sit down and talk to Max about it, and I had to talk to his teacher, to have her get a little bit emotional about what was going on, I kind of knew, but he was a really good boy.
“There were reporters turning up to his soccer game and that was tough, but when I was asked if I was going to pay the woman off, that really hurt. I felt they were not privy to what was going on, but I just couldn’t talk. I was standing there and my son is a metre away – he’s only seven. That was hard. I know the reporter wants an answer, he wants to write a story, but knowing exactly what the accusation was, yet I couldn’t say anything. It was really unfair and so I just had to live with it.”
Muliaina took refuge with his family and friends, including his former Chiefs manager Stu Williams, and former team-mate Stephen Donald, who took him fishing in the Coromandel immediately on his return from Cardiff, where he was officially charged in July.
“Although going home was really difficult, I did have a lot of friends who were supportive, and that is what I needed. Visiting my family in Invercargill helped me a lot in those moments and the loneliness.
“The hardest thing about this situation, was that I couldn’t fix it next week. I couldn’t go out onto a rugby field and play exceptionally well and people would be talking about how awesome Mils had played, I couldn’t do that. This was definitely one the hardest challenges. I was having to fight, but in a different way, rather than picking up a rugby ball.
“I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, and I tried to live as normally as I possibly could, being seen out. I didn’t want people thinking I was hiding anything, but it’s hard when you see people and they take a second glance at you.”
One of a few All Black centurions, he declined two invitations he dearly would have loved to accept – a testimonial match for the late Jerry Collins, although he attended the funeral in Porirua, sitting beside Jonah Lomu – and attending the 100th cap presentation to Ma’a Nonu at the World Cup.
“I was asked several times by Dan Carter to attend the World Cup. He asked me to be a part of the special occasion, but I had to decline as I needed to avoid the media – it was all about Ma’a’s special day.
“The perception of the All Blacks is right up there, you worry that what you have done might have let the jersey down. There is a lot of emotion that goes on – we are talking nine or 10 years of my life in a jersey that is very much respected globally, and there is a bit of hurt that you have tarnished that, as well as yourself, but I knew I had done nothing wrong, and now the rest of the world knows now.”
Muliaina, however, takes some responsibility for the event in that he was briefly in a nightclub looking for some of his mates. It had been a bad weekend for him. Connacht had lost to Cardiff by a point, he had been replaced early, and at the back of his mind was his impending departure from Galway which no one outside the club was aware of.
He admits not being in a good space. Having believed he would be remaining at Connacht for another season, he had turned down previous offers to remain in Ireland.
“I did feel let down. I had been taken off and I was frustrated with negotiations with Connacht. But I also wanted to have a good night with the boys. If I could change anything now, I wouldn’t have left the hotel again.”
Much has been documented of Connacht’s evening drinking at the Kiwi’s Bar in Cardiff on a designated night out for the club, but Muliaina says he had returned to the team room in the hotel before venturing out again.
“Every time I have been to Cardiff with the All Blacks that is all I have ever done, just stayed in the hotel because I know how dangerous it is out there, especially Cardiff. I have always done that.
“For the one time I let my guard down, and say, ‘well, I’m not an All Black now, I’m fine’, but the reality is you still are [an All Black]. I would’ve just stayed there with Rodders [Rodney Ah You] and George [Naoupu] and enjoyed each other’s company as opposed to going out. At the end of the day, it was a bad decision from my end to go out in Cardiff altogether.
“But life has moved on. Hopefully I have done a lot in my career, and I hope it was reflected in the way people have treated me despite what has happened – that they don’t mention it, they still want to chat, and that has been really promising for me. It has certainly helped me get on with my life and the boys in Zebre have been so supportive.”
Muliaina says the incident has made him a “way better person”.
“Yes, there is the ‘bloody drinking’ and mistakes when I was 21, but I have come along way since then. The incidents when I was in my early 20s made me realise that not only am I a target, but also a role model, and that helped me become an All Black the following year and maybe who I am today.
“In the past I would get frustrated, battle through things that I didn’t necessarily want to talk to people about, and I would carry it onto the pitch. But this time round it was different because I wasn’t allowed to talk about it. Obviously, it was quite lonely as my partner was the only person I could talk to.
“When all the shit was going on, I went out and socialised in New Zealand – it was a way for me to show I had done nothing wrong. But when a passerby spoke to me and said ‘tell me it’s not true’, it hit home the most. I realised I didn’t have to be seen out, I had no need to prove anything because I knew myself.
“So when we came to Italy, I just wanted to enjoy things. I didn’t drink for six months – that was a personal decision for me while I was dealing with the allegations. Hangovers make you feel down, and I didn’t need to feel any worse about myself in this situation.”
Muliaina also realised his body could never respond in the same way to the will and drive that made him one of New Zealand’s celebrated All Blacks, and decided to re-evaluate his goals.
“I was quick to be optimistic about Zebre once I made the decision. We were at the bottom of the table, but we could have a successful season by winning a few games. You adjust your goals, and for a person who has always played up, it is a difficult thing to do. But if Cardiff had not happened, if I was going to be truly honest, I would not have driven myself as hard as I have here because of the way they have reacted and the loyalty they showed .
“Yes, it was a hell of time, the most challenging time of my career, but there are positives also. I have renewed my goals and am realistic about it. They are no longer to win a Tri Nations, a World Cup, or a Grand Slam, and that’s okay, but there are going to be one or two games we must win and that is the same feeling when winning the Bledisloe Cup. You have to accept that – that is what I needed to do because of this incident.”
Now Muliaina is moving onto a new chapter in his life – taking up an offer in San Francisco to study chiropractory and also play in the USA’s new Pro competition. “I have had a scholarship offer for the last few years and I put it on the back burner, but they are prepared to work around my rugby commitments. I am looking forward to this next step in my life. It’s been rugby all my life.
“Gianluca [Guidi], the Zebre coach, told me just before we played Connacht this season, ‘every day I’ve seen you as a player and always admired you, but every day I have seen the person you are and what you have done here has been fantastic and the person you are is unbelievable’.
“I got a bit emotional before the game. Part of me knew how hard my struggles were after the Connacht thing, and for him to say that, it was really touching, and again I have really to thank the people here. They didn’t have to accept me, they could have run, but they really continued to support me as best they could and have gone out of their way.”
Life in Italy, he says, has been “Bellissimo. Molto Bellissimo.”