Choice is hard - All Blacks jersey or gold, says Muliaina

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am


It will be a tough choice, but young emerging players in New Zealand will have to decide between the dreams of an All Black jersey or a gold medal at the Olympics. Achieving both will be difficult, says 100-test legend Mils Muliaina.

'It will be the odd guy, the rare guy, who may be able to do both, but sevens has become a specialised game and I doubt players can do both. They will have to make a choice,' Muliaina said.

Returning to Hong Kong for the first time since appearing as a player in the New Zealand team which won the 2000 Hong Kong Sevens - his coach was still Gordon Tietjens - Muliaina turned out for the BGC APBs (formerly Asian-Pacific Barbarians) at the Hong Kong Football Club Tens last week. He kept his winning record in the city intact as the team, captained and coached by former All Black teammates Justin Marshall and Tana Umaga, won the tournament.

Today, Muliaina will be in the stands 'enjoying a few beers' and cheering on New Zealand as they make a bid to defend the Cup title. The outcome is uncertain, but what is clear in his mind is that the game has changed dramatically since his fleeting appearance.

'It's a totally different game,' he said. 'The skill sets are different and you need superior fitness levels.

'A good example will be Richie [McCaw, All Blacks captain] and D.J. [Forbes, who is captain of the Kiwi team here]. Both play similar positions, but at the same time, totally different positions when it comes to sevens and 15s.

'If you chuck Richie in to play sevens, I don't think he will quite be the same like D.J. Similarly, the other way around. This is an example where emerging players will have to think, 'Can I go all the way in sevens or 15s'.

'Sevens has become specialised and I can see the Olympics being a big carrot for a lot of guys. You may get a Jonah Lomu doing both, but in the future people will have to decide between the two.'

Like many others, Muliaina made his mark at sevens before going on to light the 15s stage. New Zealand sevens mastermind Tietjens, who produced 36 All Blacks since taking up the reins in 1994, has nothing but praise for Muliaina.

'Mils was just as gifted as Christian [Cullen] and Glen [Osborne],' Tietjens said. 'He generously acknowledges sevens to be the launching pad to a career which saw him become one of the best fullbacks in the world.'

John Kirwan, an All Black of a previous vintage and who like Muliaina also won a World Cup (15s) medal, agrees the Olympics lure will be huge, especially for the brand All Blacks. Although players representing New Zealand in sevens do not become All Blacks, he said it was important to win the first Olympic gold medal - in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro - as it would add magic to the men in black.

'Winning the first Olympic gold in sevens rugby will be a big benefit commercially. The winner will have a new market open to him,' said Kirwan, an ambassador for co-title sponsors HSBC this weekend.

'If I was a young player, I would say to myself, do I go on to become an All Black and play at the World Cup, or should I go for the Olympics. The sevens needs distinctive athletes and I don't think both can be done, unless you are a Lomu.'

Kirwan played 63 tests for the All Blacks on the wing and fullback. As did Muliaina, but he went a few steps better finishing with 100 caps, becoming only the second person to pass that landmark - behind his captain at the last World Cup, McCaw, who achieved it in a pool game against France.

The enormity of what he has done has only started to sink in now for the 31-year-old Muliaina.

'Playing one test match in itself for the All Blacks is very special but to get to a 100 is huge, more so now that I'm not playing for you realise what you have done,' he said. 'When I look back and reflect, I know it is something very special. My grandkids will be proud.

'It's sunk in now and you realise it's a lot of games, and you are also aware of your age and that you are not a spring chicken anymore.

'I recently went home and saw on my mum's wall a couple of jerseys and realised they were mine. It brings back the memories.'

Muliaina made his test debut in 2003 against England. His final test was against Argentina in the quarter-finals at last year's World Cup. The All Blacks won, but it ended badly for him.

'I broke my shoulder blade. It was just before half-time and it was in a tackle. When I got up to run I couldn't lift my arm and I knew something was wrong. I thought, and hoped, that it was just a muscle injury and I could get better in a week, but a scan picked up a straight crack down my shoulder blade.

His dream of playing in the World Cup final was over.

'I was crushed, knowing that not only was I out of the World Cup, but also that this was probably my last game for the All Blacks. It was devastating for being in your own backyard you definitely wanted to be part of the team in the final. But you can't control things like that. I knew my tournament was over and also that it would be my last black jersey.'

After a couple of months on the mend, Muliaina was back on the field, but this time in Japan where he has been turning out for ATT Docomo in the Top League.

With no more ties back home, to Super Rugby, he has for the first time in many years found himself free at this time of the season. He jumped at the opportunity to turn up in Hong Kong to play at the tens and then watch some sevens.

But his heart is in 15s. 'I won't change anything if I had the chance. Winning 100 caps for the All Blacks is very special,' he said.

Indeed. It is a select club of just two.