Mils Muliaina has only been away for two seasons but he can't believe the changes at the Chiefs in that time.
The 33-year-old veteran of 100 caps for the All Blacks and 104 Super Rugby matches is back from Japan and ready to put on the Chiefs jersey once again this season.
That could come as early as next week when the back-to-back champion Chiefs open their defence of the Super Rugby title on the road to multi-title winners the Crusaders after he was released by his Japanese club early.
But it all seems quite different from when Muliaina left at the end of the 2011 Super Rugby season, having captained the Chiefs for his last two years here.
The team base has moved, the training facilities have improved, the coaches have changed and so have most of the team.
"I think different is an understatement," said Muliaina. "It's just massive, the change - the facilities, the culture, the faces.
"There are only a handful of guys who are still here from when I was playing here last three seasons ago, while the management and the style of play they have brought in as well as the work ethic have all really shone out to me since I've been back here, and in particular this last week.
"You can certainly see with some of the things they do why they have become back-to-back champions."
Muliaina was not expected back from Japan until later this month but he has officially joined the squad now after being excused from this weekend's Japan Top League promotion-relegation playoff by NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes as he is not cleared for full contact until this weekend.
"I wasn't going to be available for that match so they decided they might as well let me go to help me prepare for the Chiefs' season, so I'm pretty thankful and I'm here now a little earlier than what was expected."
Team-mate Kane Thompson has also returned from Japan this week after missing the 2013 Super Rugby season while playing for the Canon Eagles.
Muliaina is coming back from an injury-plagued 2013 and has some foot problems but is likely to be available for the start of the season.
"I got my knee cleaned out early last year - just stuff from wear and tear over the years - and unfortunately I came back and tore the tendon off my elbow so that took a bit of time and is what is healing at the moment.
"They're not big injuries, but I haven't played too much rugby this year and certainly the mind's fresh and the body feels pretty good."
Muliaina is unsure where his best position in this team lies but admits that while he was the world's best fullback for a number of years playing for the All Blacks and the Chiefs he has always relished any chances he got to play centre - albeit limited ones.
"There's a few injuries at the moment and I'm finding myself playing at the back at the moment, but I haven't really had a chance to sit down with the coaches yet and have a decent chinwag about it.
"They've said I'll be covering the back three and maybe a little bit at centre, but at this stage when you look at the calibre of guys that are here - there's a heck of a lot of competition.
"Hopefully I can slot myself somewhere where there's not too much competition and push myself for a starting spot."
Muliaina said that at this stage of his career he was happy to go wherever he fitted best into the team environment but don't write him off just because of his age.
He has yet to really test his speed but said his mental freshness meant he felt he could really push himself in that area, while he believed he came back a better player due to his overseas experience.
"I think being overseas has opened my eyes to a lot of things, certainly mentally. I looked after my body a hell of a lot better than before I left and I'm certainly seeing the game a bit differently as well.
"So who knows, hopefully all that will show in the next few months.
"But I've just got to play smarter - make sure I stay in the systems and just work harder finding other things that can be a bit of a strength.
"Just little things I can work on week-in, week-out rather than coming in with a basketfull of things I want to tick off each week and then finding my thinking cluttered."
- Waikato Times
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