Mils Muliaina rusty but ready for Super Rugby
Mils Muliaina hasn't played a game of rugby in New Zealand for nearly three years but he backs his experience to get him through the Super Rugby season opener in Christchurch tomorrow night.
Muliaina, a 33-year-old veteran of 100 tests and more than 100 Super Rugby games, last played in New Zealand for the Chiefs in 2011 and has been in Japan since until returning to the Hamilton-based squad last week.
Tomorrow he will start at fullback against the Crusaders in the tough New Zealand Conference derby despite no pre-season play.
His selection forces Tim Nanai-Williams onto the right wing, meaning no room for impressive newcomer James Lowe.
Other talking points of the first team selection include August Pulu being preferred over All Black Tawera Kerr-Barlow as starting halfback and Charlie Ngatai's return from injury to play second five-eighth.
Head coach Dave Rennie said they were backing former captain Muliaina because of his vast experience and his good physical shape.
The player himself seems comfortable with the situation and excited to be returning to top level rugby after an injury-plagued stint in Japan for NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes.
"I haven't really put too much pressure on myself," Muliaina said.
"I think over the last couple of weeks, knowing there are a couple of injuries and there could be a high possibility of me playing I've done a little bit of homework.
"And I've tried to take a bit of pressure off myself by giving guys certain roles that I would normally do on the field, but I've just got to trust my instincts I think."
Muliaina still backs his speed and explosiveness to be an attacking force from fullback in a potent Chiefs back three in concert with wingers Tim Nanai-Williams and Asaeli Tikoirotuma and said the simplicity of the Chiefs' systems had helped him slot in.
"I'm really excited to get back out there, play some decent footy and challenge myself.
"I can't wait, to be honest. This is what I wanted to come back for and I'm looking forward to the challenge ahead and getting stuck in."
He hasn't missed the fact that a big rivalry has built up between the Chiefs and Crusaders in his absence as the Chiefs have taken over as New Zealand's dominant side.
"I've watched little clips of the games while I've been away and there certainly has been a rivalry between these two teams so definitely come this week there is going to be no let-up."
Muliaina said the challenge for him had been regaining his rugby fitness and getting used to the heavy contact again after a lot of time spent last season sidelined firstly by clean-up surgery on his knee and then by an elbow injury.
It was certainly all there for him in yesterday's big training run ahead of the match and he admits it is several steps up from Japan and even from what he experienced the last time he played here.
"You can run as much as you want - and that's what I did for the last year in Japan because I've been injured - but once you get to the start-stop, the getting off the ground, the tackling and just the way the intensity is, that's really what I've got to get used to and that was really my first big hit-out in this training run.
"I haven't made a tackle for a few years so having to tackle today and having to tackle some big boys - the Japanese boys are not that big - it's been a case of closing your eyes really and hoping that aspect is still there in my game."
Rennie said Muliaina was confident he had got his head around what the Chiefs were trying to do.
"Hopefully he can ignite things from the back from a counterattack point of view and organise well as a last line of defence," Rennie said.
There was not a lot between Pulu and Kerr-Barlow and they would share the duties initially and create a bit of competition for the No9 jersey, but Pulu had been outstanding starting last week against the Blues.
Ngatai came through training and got the nod to wear the 12 jersey, while Andrew Horrell has been bracketed on the bench with teenager Anton Leinert-Brown and needs to show today he has recovered well from yesterday's run before being confirmed in the playing squad.
New lock Matt Symons, who has been suffering from an abscess in his mouth, has also been bracketed with Liam Squire on the bench with a decision to be made today.
Meanwhile the Crusaders have left All Blacks Wyatt Crockett and Tom Taylor on the bench in favour of Tim Perry at loosehead prop and Tyler Bleyendaal at first five-eighth.