Tuesday 27 June 2017

Tony Ward: Connacht face huge battle but they have a true warrior in John Muldoon

John Muldoon goes through his paces at training this week. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
John Muldoon goes through his paces at training this week. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

There have been a number of key pieces to the Connacht jigsaw but, relative to what has been achieved in recent times, two men stand apart.

To borrow from Monty Python, one is 'bleeding obvious' (Pat Lam's role needs no further elaboration from me) but the other I'm not so sure about. Not so sure in so far as I'm not certain he comes even close to getting the credit he deserves for what he has contributed to the Connacht cause and the difference he has made in taking rugby in the western province to where it is today. If any individual epitomises the tag 'Grassroot to Greenshirt', it is John Muldoon.

Just this week the Connacht captain signed on for a 15th successive season. He will be 35 this year and by the time that birthday comes around in late November, then, injury-permitting, he should have passed through a phenomenal 300 appearances for the province he loves so well.

"It's an honour to play on and I wouldn't do so unless I was going to contribute something. I suppose missing one game and starting 16 is not a bad return so far (this season) for a young fella like me. In terms of committing to Connacht Rugby, that's a no-brainer."

A typically understated summary from the player himself or, as excellent CEO Willie Ruane put it best: "He is a role model in our community and to every player that comes in the gates of the Sportsground."

Let me come at it from a playing perspective. Muldoon is one of those individuals you want in the dressing room and in the white heat of battle alongside you. He is one for the trenches.

In my own time between the white lines, players like Shay Deering, Pat O'Hara, Nigel Carr, Howard Kealy and Noel McCarthy fitted that bill. Ultra-competitive on the field and dignified to the point of shyness at times off of it. Well, in most cases anyway!

Muldoon is a warrior. A hurler by birth but a rugby player by design. He epitomises everything good about the game. His interaction with match officials is an object lesson for would-be captains everywhere.

Impish

That impish smile but riddled with apparent respect works almost every time. When the best in the business - Nigel Owens - radiates reciprocal respect in mid-match deliberations with the Connacht captain, you know you are witnessing something special.

I would draw comparison with Jamie Heaslip by way of work ethic. The contribution of the greatest ever players in the No 8 position for their respective provinces is certainly appreciated from within. For some reason in Heaslip's case he will only be fully appreciated at international level when he is gone.

As for Muldoon, he has just three appearances (against Canada, the US and New Zealand) at the highest level. It is a meagre return but indicative of an area (back-row) in which Irish rugby has always been amazingly strong and probably now more than ever.

Obviously we hope we are very wide of the mark but tomorrow's game in Toulouse could conceivably mark the end of the Champions Cup road until 2018 at least by which time the captain's playing career might well have run its course. To that end, the shoot-out in Stade Ernest Wallon is the make-or-break game in Connacht's season and for the current captain and coach as well.

We can take it as read that Wasps will secure all five points against Zebre (even in Italy) to move to 22 and more than likely top the Pool. A losing bonus point for Connacht might just see them join Munster and Leinster in the last eight - but it's essential they get that as Toulouse took the losing bonus from the Sportsground and Connacht have to at least match that. After that, it's down to the calculators but what an achievement qualification would be.

Nevertheless, Connacht will want to remove all doubt by winning tomorrow. They have won there before, as well as beating Toulouse at the Sportsground in the first-round meeting back in October.

They have worked their way into a really strong position to still have their fate in their own hands.

And 'hands' for Connacht is the operative word. They know no other way. They are the only team in the competition to average more than 20 minutes of possession per game. They are top of the tree for carries, metres made, clean breaks and defenders beaten.

They will play just as they did at the Sportsground in October and look to move the team (and specifically a powerful forward unit) with the meanest defence but best offloading record about. It worked at the death in Galway and if it goes to the wire again in Toulouse then so much the better.

Munster should seal the deal in Limerick today and will be disappointed not to take all five points based on what we witnessed from Racing in Paris a fortnight ago. For the sake of that great club's credibility, and out of respect for their assistant coach, let's hope they've left the white flag back at base before setting out for Shannon.

For Ulster, it's been a hugely disappointing campaign but home comfort at the Kingspan plus the absolute need for a confidence-boosting, morale-building performance, ought see the northern province, even in the absence of Ruan Pienaar, prove too strong for Ian Madigan and Begles Bordeaux in Belfast.

But unquestionably the game of the weekend from an Irish perspective is in Toulouse. It is conceivable that all three teams - Wasps, Connacht and Toulouse - could finish up with more points than the best-finishing qualifiers in other pools.

I am thinking specifically of Toulon in that regard. They are at Saracens for the final game in Pool 3 where the champions of the last four years - neither side very popular - go head to head.

If Toulon scrape through they could bulldoze their way to outright success.

Head ruling heart, I'm going for Clermont, Leinster, Munster, Saracens, Wasps, Glasgow, Toulouse and Montpellier to make the last eight.

Irish Independent

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