By Wynne Gray
Friday Jun 25, 2010
For a rare time in his multi-decorated career, Mils Muliaina has been dealing with some doubt.
Not a great deal, but enough to have the 82-test veteran twitching on the cusp of his return to the international stage when the All Blacks meet Wales in Hamilton tomorrow.
Muliaina's agitation has developed since he broke his thumb while playing for the Chiefs in early April.
That ended his Super 14 campaign and then he damaged a calf muscle in club rugby.
The fullback was picked for tomorrow's match on history and hope and has managed just one game for his Te Rapa club since, while Israel Dagg took the limelight in his debut test in Dunedin.
Meanwhile, Muliaina's self-belief took a number of hits.
He wondered whether his injuries would allow him to return to top form, whether Dagg had shot past him in the rankings and how he would respond to a sport which had evolved, significantly, in the last two months.
It was all a little reminiscent for Muliaina of his entry to the test arena seven years ago when he lobbed into the fullback frame ahead of the damaged Christian Cullen, Leon MacDonald, Ben Blair and Doug Howlett to begin his outstanding career.
Since then, he has rarely been out of view. Sometimes he has played on the wing or centre but he has been an automatic selection and outstanding contributor since his first start against Wales in Hamilton.
He starred that night as Wales with their then coach Steve Hansen, were belted 55-3.
After his injury frustrations, Muliaina gets to start again on his home patch against Wales.
"I am fortunate to be here," he agreed yesterday, "having only played four games in the Super 14 and now I get a chance to play a test match."
In the past when younger fullbacks like Dagg came along, it always kept Muliaina on his guard but this season he had no answer as he was on the injured list.
The All Black fullback will turn 30 later this month, still with his sights on next year's World Cup, though he admits those dreams felt a long way off as he waded through his rehabilitation.
He wants to get through the first half tomorrow and perhaps see some more time after the oranges, but will need some rest after that.
"I was actually really surprised when they named the team," Muliaina admitted.
"At best I thought I would be coming off the bench but obviously they think they can manage my workload a bit more by starting."
He had noted the increased ball movement in both All Black tests this season and was excited about some similar action at Waikato Stadium. He felt the game had changed a great deal since he bowed out of the Super 14.
The All Blacks were training more as a team instead of splitting into groups of backs and forwards and that was another novel aspect he discovered since his reintroduction to the squad.
"We tended to go away in the past and work on our own sort of units whereas now you need to have structures that the whole team knows about and are on the job about," he said.
As he whiled away his time at home, in the gym and swimming pool, rehabbing his injuries, Muliaina struggled with his motivation.
"I'd be lying if I said I hadn't," he said.
"There have been times when I have sat at home and gone 'what's going on'. It has made the year seem pretty long. I went away and thought about things a fair bit and you appreciate some of the things people like Ali [Williams] go through."
There were times when Muliaina wondered if he had the drive to get back to the top.
It played on his mind and at times he found himself wondering for days about his dramas. The fullback learned to seek others for help and guidance.
"I am excited now, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I am out of the tunnel and hopefully I can prove myself," he said.
It helped for him to be around the All Blacks and their medical staff during his recovery.
Watching Dagg and knowing Cory Jane was also sharp gave him the extra incentive to prove he could still cut it at test level. When he thought he was doing it tough, he noted that his captain, Richie McCaw, was the same age and had fought his way back from injury and played in a much more demanding environment in the forwards.
Muliaina was getting more excited as he survived this week without incident.
He remembered his first test start in Hamilton, the initial physical inquest from the Welsh and the way Dan Carter controlled that match.
It was comforting to return to familiar surroundings at Waikato Stadium.
It was one of the best arenas in the world, he said, where spectators got a great view from the stands and players enjoyed the surface.
Muliaina did not doubt his ability nor did he feel under pressure, but he accepted he was anxious about surviving after such a long break from the top level. He was ready for any salvo of kicking from Wales and excited about his second chance.
In the back of his mind, this was the start of getting right for next year's World Cup. Muliaina is not keen to play overseas after that tournament although his wife may alter those plans.
For now though, his vision is on Waikato Stadium and the 7.35pm kickoff tomorrow night.