Rugby: Mils latest to say sayonara

By Gregor Paul

Mils Muliaina is breaking away. Photo / Getty Images
Mils Muliaina is breaking away. Photo / Getty Images

Mils Muliaina is poised to become the second big-name All Black to spurn the advances of Europe and shift to Japan after the World Cup.

The Chiefs captain is thought to have been targeted by Ospreys who were looking for a world-class fullback after losing Welsh international Lee Byrne to Clermont.

While the Welsh club have money, ambition and an improving pedigree, they play in physically demanding competitions throughout the worst of the British winter.

Muliaina will be 31 later this year and has been one of the most consistently-selected All Blacks since he broke into the test side in 2003. He has played 94 tests in eight seasons as well as close to 90 Super Rugby games and a handful of provincial encounters.

That heavy workload has taken its toll in recent seasons with Muliaina frequently spending time on the sidelines with injury. He cracked his foot in 2007, broke his thumb last year and is currently sidelined for a month with a damaged back, and the prospect of playing just 12 games a season, as is the way in Japan, holds considerable appeal.

Brad Thorn appears to hold that view, too, as he has reportedly rejected a one-year deal with Clermont in France and is considering signing a longer contract with the Suntory Club in Tokyo.

Should one or both Muliaina and Thorn end up in Japan, it will be a sign of the double threat New Zealand faces in retaining talent. The spending power of French and, to a lesser extent, UK-based clubs has been obvious for the past decade.

While the bulk of New Zealand's A-list players are more inclined to see Europe as a first option, the Japanese market has not relented and continues to be able to muster top-dollar packages. Japan poses a major threat to New Zealand's upper mid-tier of talent. The biggest names are likely to head there only once they are obviously at the end of their careers - Muliaina and Thorn being classic examples.

It's the players on the cusp of national selection who are most vulnerable - players who may have won a few caps but face a tough track to win any more.

In recent seasons players like Tamati Ellison, Josh Blackie and Troy Flavell have signed for Japanese clubs.

The money on offer is considerably more than these players could earn in Europe. Some of the recent recruits to Japan are believed to be earning close to $600,000 a season. A comparative offer in Europe for someone with limited test experience would be $300,000-$400,000 a season.

The New Zealand Rugby Union are trying to tie-in a number of senior players to longer-term deals beyond 2011.

Confidence is high many of the key men - Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams - are on track to re-commit, but inevitably others, such as Muliaina, Thorn, John Afoa and Neemia Tialata, could be heading offshore.

With Japan able to offer such lucrative terms, it was no surprise the NZRU debated then rejected amending their eligibility regulations last month.

"The board remains very firmly of the view that, on balance, the stance we've taken previously still holds," said chief executive Steve Tew.

"There may be a short-term gain in allowing players from overseas to play for the All Blacks, but our view is on balance if we made the All Blacks jersey available to those overseas a significant number of our best players would not be playing rugby in New Zealand."

- Herald on Sunday

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