Where are they now?: Mooloos legend Deon Muir
"The province was just on fire'AARON GOILE
Deon Muir's memory of his Waikato debut is sketchy.
"I've been knocked out a few times over the years; I can't remember something from two weeks ago," he quipped.
That debut match – which was a win in Hamilton against Bay of Plenty in 1995 – was the start of a distinguished career for the powerful No 8.
Muir went on to play 101 games for the Mooloos, the 20th player to reach that milestone. He captained the red, yellow and blacks, as well as the Chiefs and the Maori All Blacks.
He was at the helm during the magical 21-game Ranfurly Shield tenure from 1997 to 2000 – a time when passionate fans flocked to parades down the main street.
"The province was just on fire.
The crowds were awesome at games, people were painting their cars, houses, fences, everything, red, yellow and black," Muir recalled.
"The town was just buzzing at that time. We were walking on water; couldn't do anything wrong.
"We defended it against every first division team, so that was huge.
"Those were the days when the crowd could run on to the field and give you a pat on the back.
"You couldn't get off the field until about an hour afterwards, you had a heap of drunken skunkens jumping all over you. But as players we used to love that interaction with our fans. You just don't really get that any more, which is a pity, but times have changed obviously."
Muir had his sights set on playing 100 games for Waikato, with 2002 to be his last season.
To bring up three figures he had to play in every match, including the pre-season, as well as have his side make the playoffs.
The Mooloo men did that and Muir led the team out for his 100th in the semifinal against Otago at Waikato Stadium – the year it opened to replace Rugby Park.
"The boys really were there for the match, we played really well and we got into the final, and then we bloody got beaten by Auckland," he recalled of his last matches in New Zealand.
Muir was one of those really good Waikato players of that era who were desperately close to All Black selection but who never got the call-up.
At the end of 2002 there was immense speculation he would be picked for the end-of-year tour but instead he headed to Japan.
"New Zealand Rugby wanted me to sign, and there was talk of me going on tour, and then nothing was guaranteed after that," Muir recalled. "I was at the stage where I was 29, going on 30 and played 100 games for Waikato and had sort of done everything I could do apart from make the All Blacks. In Japan, [I was] guaranteed three years, and [I had] a young family.
"It was a huge decision to make at the time but it was time for me to go. There were phone calls from All Black management saying this and that but in the end I chose to go overseas, and that was my choice."
Those were the days where the word sabbatical had not entered the rugby dictionary.
"Obviously things have changed now, where guys can go and play in Japan for a few months and come back. You just couldn't do it back when we were playing; it was unheard of," Muir said.
"If then was now, then I may have played for the All Blacks."
But, despite taking some time to settle in, Muir could not have been happier with his decision to head to Sanix, where he stayed for seven years, before returning with a broken leg and hanging up his boots in 2008.
"The first year I struggled.
"I thought I'd made the biggest mistake of my life; just adapting to the Japanese style of footy and the refereeing interpretations.
"Pretty much thinking I could go from here and go over there and just run over Japanese players.
"Because they're so quick, the defensive line will come up so fast, so as a foreigner you get the ball, you get about four Japanese hanging off you. And they're real good tacklers, they just fly at your knees and ankles, they tackle you real low and they tip you up."
However, once Muir became accustomed to the style of play, he countered it with a fend and a swerve, and loved the next seven years. So did his family – with he, wife Ngaire, daughter Tayla (20) and son Caleb (13) becoming immersed in their new surroundings.
"If you go over there with the mindset you're just going to play rugby, you won't last long," Muir said. "But if you go over there and you get right into their culture, and learn the language and all that, they love you."
After arriving back in the country Muir lived at Mt Maunganui, before moving back to the Waikato in 2012, with his old club, Te Awamutu Sports, wanting him to take on a coaching role.
"I was getting involved a little bit with rugby in the Bay but because you talk about Waikato players, and the colours run through your veins, I just didn't feel right over there, so I decided to come back over here.
"Obviously networking and all that sort of stuff, it was better for me back here where I played all my rugby. That club did a lot for me in my early days and supported a lot of what I did."
Muir was the assistant coach in 2012, took over as coach last year and will take the reins again this year. He has also coached the Waikato under-16 side for a couple of years and will take the Waikato under-20s for a second year with former team-mate Roger Randle, while he is also a resource coach for Waikato and the Chiefs.
"I didn't know whether coaching was going to be for me but I love it as much as when I was playing," said Muir, who will head back to Sanix to do some spot coaching this year. "So the plan is to keep getting experience and develop my own coaching and, obviously, aim for higher honours.
"It's quite funny; my wife, when I finished a total of 14 years of professional rugby, she thought it was going to be back to normal life.
"But now I'm coaching I seem to be away even more. It's just a lot more organisation and planning, and the pastoral care of these young fellas these days. It's a lot more involved. As a player you just turned up and trained and played, but as a coach you're responsible for 25-30 guys. It's not easy, especially the young kids these days. But it's rewarding when you actually get out there and win some games and see kids develop, that's what I love about it. If you can hand down the knowledge, it's great."
Muir, 40, is now "eating, breathing rugby the whole time" and coaching nearly every day of the week, with his fulltime job as the Te Awamutu community rugby development manager, based at Te Awamutu College, coupled with some part-time work with Youth Guarantee at the Open Wananga.
"The role came about because about three years ago the 1st XV at Te Awamutu got pulled from the competition because they didn't have enough players and rugby was sort of falling to pieces. So a couple of guys pulled together and came up with a role. And it just so happened that I was in the area at the time and it was a good fit. So that's been me for the last couple of years.
"Part of my role is to create a few opportunities in terms of rugby out at Te Awamutu, to keep the cream of the crop out there rather than the city schools getting them."
Needless to say, Muir still religiously watches Waikato and the Chiefs, getting along to the stadium whenever he is able.
And it continues to amaze him how much stronger and quicker the modern players are.
"I'd be sitting at the game with a few of the old boys from the Chiefs or Waikato, thinking sheez, could I handle hits like that nowadays?
"They're going 100 miles an hour, you've got props that are running like loose forwards. We were just as physical and just as tough, but they just seem to have got a bit faster and a bit bigger."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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