Saturday, November 13, 2010

Muliaina on pedestal with greats
Thursday November 11, 2010 Source: NZPA

As he sat head in hands with a bouncer-inflicted fractured eye socket in 2003, Mils Muliaina never visualised he would one day rank alongside two of the most recognisable faces of All Black rugby.

Muliaina easily draws a distinction between himself, Richie McCaw, and Sean Fitzpatrick, the All Blacks icon they will join on a record 92 Test caps providing nothing untoward happens before Sunday's (NZT) kick-off against Scotland at Murrayfield.

Not only did his initial selection in 2003 coincide with a drunken altercation with bouncers in Auckland - an embarrassing incident that had Muliaina, 30, reluctant to make eye contact at his first media call - he has never coveted the captaincy.
Muliaina's captaincy lasted a brief, and generally uncomfortable, fortnight in June last year when McCaw was unavailable to play France and Italy.

The Samoa-born Southland-raised fullback, who now calls the Waikato home, opened his Test career the last time the All Blacks lost to England, while his captaincy also started unsuccessfully when the French won in New Zealand for the first time since 1994.

Muliaina could not wait for McCaw to return to full fitness and also resume his off field responsibilities as the team's figurehead.
Those three Tests in charge provided ample insight into the rigmarole McCaw - and Fitzpatrick before him - embraced on a daily basis.

"I don't know Richie puts up with the off field stuff," Muliaina said.
"I had to do a speech at Parliament and I couldn't stop thinking about it the whole day.
"I got a massive appreciation about the pressures he's under - the things he has to do as well as perform."

Having known the world renowned openside flanker for 13 years, Muliaina is not surprised McCaw has grown into the presence he commands today.
They first played against each other in 1997 when Southland Boys' High School and their Otago counterparts met in a typically willing secondary schools derby.
Muliaina then drifted north to Auckland joined Kelston Boys' High School, and again clashed with McCaw's OBHS in the national first 15 competition in Christchurch.

"We'd won the world first 15 title, come home and they beat us. He still gives me stick about that."

Muliaina does not have any clear recollections about McCaw's playing ability in those early years but when they were selected in national age group teams his class and leadership qualities were soon apparent.

"You saw from the way he played how good a player he was going to be. He had a lot of competition, guys like Josh Blackie, but you could sense the talent that was coming through in Richie."

McCaw captained the All Blacks for the first time in 2004 against Wales in Cardiff when deputising for Tana Umaga and took over full time when the Wellingtonian retired from Test football after the Grand Slam was achieved at the end of 2005.
McCaw eclipsed Fitzpatrick's mark of 51 Tests in charge at Sydney in September and in Muliaina's assessment his teammate and confidante continues to go from strength to strength as a skipper.

"He's a guy who's come a very long way. He's an exceptional leader in what he's done and for me it's been really great helping him lead a team and have his trust so that I can voice opinions."

After being named in this weekend's starting line-up Muliaina also reflected on his own development since those troubled times seven years ago.
Before the Blues celebrations of their 2003 Super 12 title went haywire at the Auckland waterfront, Graham Henry had taken Muliaina aside and predicted his long and illustrious career.

"We were somewhere up north and Ted (Henry) actually mentioned to me that he thought I'd be an All Black for a very long time. I chuckled and laughed about that," he said.
"To run out this weekend and play 92 caps, words can't really describe how it feels."

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