Arrivederci, Mils

Fare thee well Mils Muliaina, who is leaving Connacht and is bound for warmer, drier climes in Northern Italy. Although Mils should be warned, the Italian winters and springs aren’t entirely tropical either.

It brings to a close one of the more useless performances by a high-profile import for an Irish province. Mils has started precisely ten matches in his only season with Connacht, scored no tries and generally didn’t play much decent rugby. He was lamentable against Leinster, briefly sparked into life against Scarlets, but didn’t do much of note after that.

A certain group of Connacht fans have been quick to go on the defensive on Mils’ behalf, and appear to be in a rush to credit Muliaina with being hugely influential on Ver Kidz in Connacht’s backline. Some have even tried to credit Mils with Robbie Henshaw’s emergence as a truck-it-up inside-centre for Ireland. Go Mils! His influence must be staggering to reach as far as Carton House when he isn’t even there. Without being on the training paddock itself, it’s impossible to identify what, if any, influence Mils has had on the young Connacht backs, so it’s simply idle speculation and wishful thinking to claim otherwise. Yes, the management statement issued around his leaving contained lots of glowing reportage about his driving of standards, but then they would say that, wouldn’t they? It’s PR puff, and should be treated as such. How high he can have driven standards when mostly injured, overweight and underperforming on the pitch is hard to quantify.  It doesn’t appear that Connacht put up much of a fight to keep him on for a second year.

There was a time when Irish provinces felt they needed the type of Southern Hemisphere superstar who could add something the natives didn’t have yet. John Langford is of course the classic template – the Gospel of John “Thou shalt not drink on a Thursday night if thee faces a big game on Saturday” came as news to the Paddies, but the knowledge he brought has long been absorbed. Rocky Elsom, Dougie Howlett, Ollie Le Roux, Johan Muller are further hugely influential players in provincial development. This was what Muliaina was supposed to bring. Will Darragh Leader and Robbie Henshaw lament in 40 years time that they wanted more time to learn from Mils back in 2015? We doubt it.

There is a legitimate claim for Muliaina to be anointed the worst ever signing by an Irish province, particularly given the investment in him. Whenever this pub debate classic comes up, it’s customary to roll out the Clinton Hupperts, Harry Vermasses and Peter Borlases of the world as the nadir of provincial recruitment, but none of those were especially heralded on arrival. They were just hopeless. Muliaina arrived as one of the all-time greats – a test centurion for New Zealand, an achievement which confers upon the holder absolute world class. For a player of such stature to perform so abjectly must go down as a new low. Sure, Christian Cullen had an injury-plagued nightmare at Munster, culminating in an abysmal performance against Scarlets as Munster were thrashed in the Heineken Cup quarter-final, but he did at least appear to be trying, and the likes of O’Gara have commented on how committed he was to turning things around, but just couldn’t stop getting hurt.

There’s a risk of embarrassing failure with any high-profile import, but it tends to be especially high with these types of ‘last of the summer wine’ type signings; bringing in players way past their peak, in the hopes of ekeing out the last drops of quality. The model for success was the afore-mentioned Le Roux, who proved that a little (or a lot, perhaps) of extra timber need not be a barrier to success – but then he was a prop and not a full-back. Muliaina will most likely go down as the model for failure. Mid-30s Kiwi superstar backs looking for a last payday: approach with caution.

NB to commenters – please don’t go into detail about The Thing That Happened with PC Plod in Gloucester. Allegations about parking spaces at the dog track Sportsground are fair game, however.