Trust Mils Muliaina to pick the same day as Richie McCaw to equal the All Blacks record for most international caps. Perhaps he secretly hoped it would be that way on Saturday against Scotland to avoid the limelight. Google “Sonny Bill Williams”, who made his debut last week, and you are bombarded with news stories, interviews and videos, whereas Muliaina’s Wikipedia entry runs to only a few lines. Time then to recognise one of the players of his generation. Moreover, one of rugby’s good guys.
Few players have demonstrated such consistency over a long period. Initially moved around from winger to outside centre before settling into the number 15 shirt, Muliaina epitomises the modern full back. Strength and deceptive pace were always in abundance from the time of Muliaina’s debut in 2003, ironically New Zealand’s last defeat to England.
But over the years, Muliaina has become New Zealand’s Mr Reliable, secure under the high ball and adding direction and intelligent running when the All Blacks counter from deep. From the first XV at Kelston Boys’ High School in Auckland to the world’s best full-back in just over ten years.
Setbacks have come and gone such as a minor off the field incident early in his career and a broken thumb which delayed the start of Muliaina’s 2010 season. Along with his debut defeat, Muliaina captained the All Blacks when they lost for the first time to France since 1994 last year. He also played on that fateful evening in Cardiff in 2007 and we all know what happened then.
Such setbacks pale into insignificance when compared to 2008 when Muliaina discovered whilst on tour in the UK that his newly born son had a congenital heart defect and would require surgery. That he continued with the tour to help the All Blacks complete the grand slam says much about his character and commitment to New Zealand rugby. Contrast that with some former All Blacks who turned their back on playing for their country during their best years for the lure of the pound or euro.
Even if Muliaina does try his hand in Europe following next year’s Rugby World Cup, no Kiwi could complain. He will be 31 by then and would have given his best years to the All Blacks. During that time, New Zealand could hardly have wished for a better representative. Nor indeed could the charity Heart Children, New Zealand, for whom Muliaina is now an ambassador.
I cannot recall much in terms of indiscipline nor any arrogance or ungraciousness in defeat. Just going about his business with minimum fuss, running brilliant lines and scoring great tries. All with a smile on his face.
So, on Saturday in Edinburgh, when the commentators are waxing lyrical about Sonny Bill Two Cap Wonder and when the magnificent McCaw leads out the All Blacks and receives all his deserved attention, spare a thought for the unassuming guy running out behind him. The 92-cap legend who never seeks any plaudits, but arguably deserves the most.
By Lee Bagshaw