Ireland 3-22 New Zealand
Muliaina makes heartfelt dedication
November 16, 2008
Muliaina stretches the Irish defence during Saturday night's clash at Croke Park © Getty Images
Little Max Muliaina was oblivious to the gesture, but Dad's excellent allround performance during the All Blacks' 22-3 Test defeat of Ireland last night was dedicated to the baby boy as he awaits heart surgery.
While Mils Muliaina was focused on ensuring the All Blacks' Grand Slam bid remained alive after the second leg at Croke Park, the health of the first-time father's three-week old was never far from his thoughts, likewise his wife Hayley.
"It's fair to say that game was for them," Muliaina said after his contribution was lauded by assistant coach Wayne Smith. "It added a little bit of motivation, just thinking about them being at home. It's a day-by-day thing but they seem to be coping quite well."
Max needs a procedure to close a hole in his heart, a defect that saw the All Blacks first-choice fullback miss the tour's previous tests against Australia in Hong Kong and Scotland in Edinburgh. The operation is scheduled for the end of this month, about the time Muliaina returns home.
Mother and son checked into Starship Hospital's this weekend, watching Muliaina's test comeback from a room at Ronald McDonald House. "Things aren't too bad," said Muliaina, who called home soon after New Zealand maintained their century-long unbeaten record against the Irish.
He was buoyed by the fact the tour had only two tests remaining, against Wales next weekend and England on November 29. "We're over the halfway mark, that's always the easiest bit," he said.
The All Blacks' most experienced back endured a difficult build-up to his 66th test, with concern about Max's health compounded by a lack of game time leading into what had been expected to be a tough challenge from the Irish. Muliaina had only played one game for Waikato since the Tri-Nations ended on September 13 but the 29-year-old slotted seamlessly into the back three alongside Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu.
Muliaina was safe under the high ball, made inroads on attack and was intuitive on defence, notably in the 29th minute when he intercepted a David Wallace pass bound for a potentially trybound Tommy Bowe.
"I was just amazed with Mils' display," Smith said. "He's obviously playing for little Max and Hayley. He had a superb game considering the lack of rugby he's had."
Muliaina wasn't as effusive about his performance but was glad to last the distance. "I'm happy to get 80 minutes under my belt. The body's feeling really good at the moment, I just want to get sharper. There were a couple of times out there I didn't feel as sharp as I wanted to be.
"I found it pretty hard in the first five or so minutes but to be fair the game wasn't as fast as I thought it was going to be."
Muliaina credited his teammates for making life easier at the back by successfully pressurising Irish first five-eighth Ronan O'Gara. "We put a lot of pressure on him. There were some kicks he didn't quite get right. They went off the side of his boot, we charged him down early on ... I felt we eliminated his kicking game," he said.
O'Gara's counterpart Daniel Carter also had his issues with the boot. He missed two easy goalkicking attempts and had a kick charged down in general play although there was little doubt he muscled up defensively, an area in which the Irishman was found wanting.
"It's the best defensive performance I've seen from a No 10," Smith enthused. "He made some big tackles and he would have ripped two or three (turnovers) and went back the other way and attacked with it. He just continues to amaze you with his allround ability and his physicality, something people don't associate with him so much. He's a very physical player."