By WYNNE GRAY
A couple of guys in shorts and rash shirts have drawn bemused looks lately on the west coast of Auckland.
Everyone else has been in their wetsuits, guarding against the cooler weather and colder temperatures as they have taken to the water round Muriwai and Karekare.
But Mils Muliaina and Doug Howlett are just dipping their toes in a new sport, learning some of the rudiments of surfing.
"We are just having a go at the moment, it is something really relaxing away from all the rugby, something which helps clear the mind from all we have been involved in," Muliaina explained.
"We have enjoyed it though and I'm sure we will keep going and we will be buying wetsuits soon.
"I used to play touch for some other exercise but this is completely different, it is something really good to do and just hang out."
The pair have had their moments, facing some of the decent surf which pounds the wild west. But they find it relaxing, almost therapeutic after the constant inspection of their very public performances with the Blues in the Super 12 competition.
Like his Crusaders' opposite Caleb Ralph, in tomorrow's final at Eden Park, Muliaina loves playing centre. But he too has been switched around this year, alternating between fullback and centre with the occasional stint on the wing.
"At centre you get the feel and pulse of the game a lot more, you have guys all around you and you get the ball a lot more," he said.
"At fullback you have to do even more organisation and at times you can feel a little lonely, a little isolated."
But it is that versatility and consistent top-grade performances which will have commended Muliaina to the All Black selectors as one of the candidates for the All Black squad to be announced in Wellington on Monday.
The 22-year-old product of the Kelston Boys High nursery is not allowing himself to think any further than tomorrow although he admits that can be difficult.
"We can't afford to think about anything else. What we need to do against the Crusaders, our minds have to be totally focussed on that match," he said during a break in training this week.
"When you get home all you want to do is leave the rugby behind. But it is tough switching off because all around you there are reminders if you listen to the radio, watch TV or read the papers. But that is part of the deal and you have to live with that."
Muliaina has had his share of unsavoury headlines for a couple of after-hours incidents but this season has been up in lights for all the right reasons.
Most of his family live in Australia but his mother is a regular on the phone, ringing to chat about what she has seen on TV and soon they are all returning to live in Auckland.
That is comforting for Muliaina who was born in Samoa, came to New Zealand when he was three and lived in Invercargill before moving north. That change brought success with the national under-19 and Colts sides, NZ sevens and NZ A's tour to Europe in 2000.
"This year I really wanted to have a strong Super 12. It is my third year in the series and we all wanted to build on what we had done with Auckland in the NPC.
"So far so good and you almost have to pinch yourself about being in the final."
Muliaina has watched some of the television replays of previous finals and knows the atmosphere, tension and intensity will be greater than he has ever experienced.
"Our forwards have been going well so we want some good ball, we want to play running rugby and with the way Carlos (Spencer) has been playing he makes it easy for us.
"He has made it easier for us this year to run angles off his play but a few times he pulls out things which even make us go 'wow'. I am sure he has got a few more tricks up his sleeve and that should be something."
If the Blues succeed, then Muliaina and Howlett should shout themselves some winterwear to surprise their mates when they go for a celebratory surf.
* Born: July 31, 1980, Salelesi, Samoa
* Educated: Kelston Boys High
* Height: 1.83m
* Weight: 84kg
* Position: Centre, fullback, wing.
* Super 12 appearances: 27.
* Visit nzherald.co.nz throughout the weekend for Super 12 updates.