Mils Muliaina is hoping to avoid becoming the latest All Black to be struck down by injury at this World Cup, ahead of what should be his 100th Test on Sunday.
New Zealand captain Richie McCaw, the first All Black to play 100 Tests, had his century celebrations put on hold when he had to withdraw with a thigh injury ahead of the pool match against Japan before reaching the landmark in the group stage win over France.
When coach Graham Henry gave his blessing to Israel Dagg as the number one full-back for the tournament opener against Tonga, it looked as if Muliaina would end his Test career stranded just short of the century milestone.
But injuries have elevated Muliaina into the starting line-up selected to play in the World Cup quarter-finals against Argentina at Auckland’s Eden Park this weekend.
He also gets the opportunity to erase the nightmare of the quarter-final loss to France four years ago and the opportunity to use his vast experience to guide an up-and-coming fly-half into the limelight.
“I’m privileged and honoured,” Muliaina said Friday, poignantly adding: “It’s just another couple of days I’ve got to survive before I get out there.”
The last thing the All Blacks need is to lose Muliaina to injury, with Dagg one of four players unavailable for the must-win encounter and the team already without backline general Dan Carter (groin) for the rest of the tournament.
Muliaina’s first Test was a few minutes off the bench in the 15-13 loss to England in 2003.
He has largely been a first choice selection since, but as Dagg’s star rose this year, Muliaina admitted to doubts he would reach his 100th Test before heading to Japan to end his playing days once the World Cup is over.
“Obviously when the boys are playing pretty well it’s hard to get yourself back out there,” he said after the All Blacks sailed through their four pool games unbeaten, with Muliaina given just one run against Canada.
“Sometimes, no matter how hard you train you don’t get an opportunity because the boys are going so well so I suppose (I was) a little nervous but I get an opportunity now.”
With Dagg’s misfortune getting Muliaina back on the field it gives the 31-year-old the chance to square the ledger for the France loss after turning down lucrative offers to move overseas in the intervening four years.
“When I made the decision to stay here, this is what it was for. This is the World Cup and I really wanted to come back and hopefully do things right,” he said.
“The pain of losing back in ‘07 has probably eased a lot, it’s four years ago and we’re here now, but I can’t wait to get out there and play knockout football.”
Muliaina, described by Henry as “a great servant to New Zealand rugby” also gets the chance to pass on the wisdom of his experience to Colin Slade who steps up to replace Carter in the pivotal position of fly-half.
“He’s got to go out and be himself and we’ve got to help him along the way,” Muliaina said of Slade.
“There’s no doubt he’s got to steer the ship and that’s his job and for us we’ve got to get in behind him and step up another level.
“Dan isn’t here now and finals football is all about ‘this week’. We learned that last time. We went home and we certainly don’t want to do that this weekend.”