New Zealand v Wales, Hamilton, June 26
Muliaina admits to career doubts
June 24, 2010
Veteran Mils Muliaina will be back in black against Wales this weekend © Getty Images
Veteran fullback Mils Muliaina returns to the international stage this weekend after a lonely battle with injuries that left him fearing for his playing future.
Muliaina, who will earn his 83rd cap against Wales in Hamilton on Saturday, confessed to feeling in a "bit of a hole" as he battled a broken thumb and then a calf strain which reduced his Super 14 season to four matches and left him wondering when he would next pull on the black No.15 jersey. In addition he has had to sitback and witness the emergence of shooting stars like Israel Dagg who made his debut against Ireland this month before following it up with another eye-catching display against Wales last weekend.
However, a concussion suffered by Dagg during the 42-9 victory in Dunedin opened the door for Muliaina's return to the mix. "I don't think I'm feeling pressure, it's just a little bit of anxiety really -- can I get out there and survive?" he said. "It's more trying not to doubt myself, trying not to doubt the fact that I'm going to break down and that I've still got the drive to get out and play. Once I get through that, then hopefully everything else will fall into place."
Muliaina said the thumb still gave him pain when bumped and the calf muscle issue remained in the back of his mind. He was surprised when named to start rather than come off the reserves bench and reckoned "it wouldn't be wise" to play the full 80 minutes.
Coach Graham Henry will manage his game time in the same manner as Otago lock Tom Donnelly, who is also playing his first major match since midway through the Super 14. While Donnelly was pragmatic about his injury woes, Chiefs custodian Muliaina said he struggled mentally with his longest break from rugby since debuting on the test stage seven years ago. He had developed a respect for players struck down by long-term injuries such as lock Ali Williams.
"It's just getting away and not thinking about it 24/7. That's where I probably struggled in the first few months," he said. "When you're in that little bit of a hole, you think 'man, am I actually going to get out of this?' Then you go and train and think 'did I feel something there?'. Before you know it, it's dinner time and you're still thinking about your injuries."
He said All Blacks team psychologist Gilbert Enoka had been a help while his first day back in the All Blacks squad had provided a "light at the end of the tunnel". Spending time with wife Hayley and baby son Max had been a bonus but "they're getting sick of me".
Dagg shone in the heavy defeats of Ireland and Wales and it reminded Muliaina of his early Test forays, including his first start, coincidentally against Wales in Hamilton in 2003. "He (Dagg) has come in and taken his opportunity, so you think 'what's it going to take to come back and get another opportunity'. When guys like that get picked, you're on your toes. The frustrating thing is you can do nothing about it, you're constantly on the sideline trying to get better. He's injured this week and that's why I've been given the opportunity. Now I have to prove that I'm worthy of being here."
Muliaina said being at his prime for next year's World Cup in New Zealand was a driving motivation as he went through his rehabilitation, which included aqua jogging and a new-found skill -- swimming. Due to turn 30 next month, he remains unsure of his plans beyond the World Cup. The preference is to see out his playing days in New Zealand as constant travel had dulled the excitement of offshore rugby.
In related news, Luke McAlister has joined the All Blacks squad in Hamilton as cover for injury-troubled fly-half Dan Carter. Utility back McAlister, one of the standouts of the New Zealand Maori team's 35-28 win over England in Napier last night, joined the All Blacks today ahead of Saturday's second test against Wales.
All Blacks management said McAlister would provide reserves cover if Carter (calf strain) was ruled out, meaning Aaron Cruden would start in the No.10 jersey. A decision on Carter, who was named in the side on Tuesday, will be made at the end of today's training, scheduled for later this afternoon.