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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 22 May, 2019
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Muliaina, Aki and McCartney to provide Connacht with 'a real injection'

Two of the Kiwi trio are still involved in New Zealand’s ITM Cup.

Muliaina has been ever-present on the sidelines for Connacht this season.
Muliaina has been ever-present on the sidelines for Connacht this season.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

CONNACHT ARE INCREASINGLY excited about the injection of playing quality Kiwi trio Mils Muliaina, Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney will provide in the coming months.

The latter duo remain involved in New Zealand’s ITM Cup, where two rounds of the regular season table remain to be played and Aki’s Counties Manukau side are in danger of missing out on the play-offs.

Should that prove to be the case, the powerful centre will be free to join up with his new teammates in Ireland from next week, although McCartney’s Auckland are still on course to reach the semi-finals of the competition.

As for the former All Black Muliaina, his recovery from elbow surgery remains on course, meaning he may debut for Connacht in the next month.

I’m not a medic, but Mils is training very well at the moment,” says Connacht manager Tim Allnutt, also a native of New Zealand.

“He’s on track. We sort of knew, when we heard that he was getting the surgery on his elbow, the recovery time that was needed. To be fair, it’s as we expected so we’re happy enough with things at the moment.”

While Darragh Leader has continued to show his promise in the 15 shirt at the beginning of this season, the option to include Muliaina on the pitch will be a major boost for head coach Pat Lam, particularly as the Challenge Cup begins to test the squad’s depth.

Tim Allnutt Allnutt has been pleased with Connacht's young players this season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Despite his ongoing rehabilitation, hooker Jason Harris-Wright explains that Muliaina is having a positive influence and has played his own part in helping Connacht to achieve three wins and a draw in their opening five Guinness Pro12 fixtures.

“We probably have a pretty young squad at the moment, young guys in the backs and even in the forwards too,” says former Leinster man Harris-Wright.

Having Mils at the moment around the place, it’s great to have his knowledge and input in everything.”

Harris-Wright also refers to the “experience” that Aki and McCartney will add to to the group, given the Kiwi pairs’ Super Rugby past. The later is nicknamed ‘The Freak’ thanks to his gym ethic, while Aki’s hand-off and tackling make him a real danger.

That McCartney, Muliaina and Aki are likely to be on the pitch together in the coming months – Connacht remain publicly uncertain of exact target dates – offers Lam the promise of a major boost of ability.

“I think a few years ago, we had it with George Naoupu when he came in at that time,” says Allnutt. “When you’ve got three guys coming in at that time, it does give you a real injection. They’re quality players coming in, so it’s going to give us a bit of a boost.”

Not that Connacht have been pining for their new signings to arrive in Ireland; other players are attempting to make jerseys their own before the big names swan into Galway.

Bundee Aki Aki will add major dynamism to Connacht's midfield. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Dave McSharry has been a defensive leader and carried strongly in the 12 shirt, while Robbie Henshaw’s physicality appears to grow with every game at 13. Aki will look to disrupt that partnership, while Harris-Wright returns from injury to compete with McCartney.

“It’s up to the guys that are there, who are getting selected, to perform – not just for themselves but also for the club,” says Allnutt, a former Connacht captain.

We can’t ask too much more of the guys that have been performing, so it’s up to the guys coming in to try and get the jerseys off them.”

Aki and McCartney will need “a couple of weeks” to recover from the ITM Cup and get settled in Galway before their presence is felt on the pitch, meaning McSharry and co. have time to prove their points.

McCartney’s Auckland actually face off against Aki’s Counties Manukau tomorrow morning [7.35am Irish time], before the former play Northland on Saturday [7.35am] and Counties take on Tasman on Sunday [04.35am].

With Auckland fourth in the ITM Cup table – the final play-off qualification spot – and Counties Manukau six points behind in fifth, one of those sides is likely to miss out, much to Connacht’s relief.

“To be honest, we want them [Aki and McCartney] to play well but their teams to lose,” says Allnutt. “That would be quite beneficial to us, so it’s a funny sort of scenario.”

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Murray Kinsella

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