Sunday 25 June 2017

Winning in Toulouse in 2013 was 'rocket launcher' for Connacht, says Muldoon

Connacht's John Muldoon Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Connacht's John Muldoon Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

It felt like a major turning point in Connacht back then, and four years on, that famous win in Toulouse still stands alone as the moment that the Westerners really believed that they were on the road to something greater.

Last season's Pro12 success ended the province's long wait for a first trophy and on Sunday, Connacht have an opportunity to write the latest chapter of their rapidly growing history as they return to the scene of their most memorable night in Europe.

Reaching the knockout stages of the Champions Cup for the first time would represent another major step in the growth of Connacht, and for John Muldoon, who has been through the good and bad times with his home province, it would be all the more special.

Muldoon had been contemplating retirement but he could hardly wipe the smile from his face yesterday when he announced that he would be staying on for one final season.

Prior to the meeting with Toulouse in 2013, Muldoon (right) had torn his calf at home to Saracens and despite having done little or no training, nobody was going to deny him the chance to take the field and attempt to end the French powerhouse's five-year unbeaten record at Stade Ernest Wallon.

"We did," Muldoon says assuredly, when asked if Connacht really believed that they could topple Toulouse back then.

"We went over with a game-plan. We had a very clear idea going over of what we wanted to do, how we wanted to beat them and we executed it perfectly.

"Going over, we had the plan in place, we had the people to do it and we saw what we thought was an opportunity to beat them over there and we knew they didn't expect what was coming.

"It was around the time we started to implement the changes in our game and that was the rocket launcher that got us going in a way, and that gave us the confidence from then on to say 'this is what we can do' if we buy into it.

"Up to that point we'd not resisted change, but there was a sense of 'jeez is this the game we're going to go with?' and I think that gave us the confidence to push on. We went over with massive expectation that we could win."

What made Connacht's achievement all the more impressive was that it came during Pat Lam's first few months in charge.

Lam had arrived in Galway with his own way of doing things. For the majority of the players, the emphasis that the Kiwi put on skills was alien to them, and it did take time for them to come around to the new philosophy, as Muldoon recalls:

"I've said this before and I'll give a shorter version. Day 1: skills; day 2: skills; day 3, skills - from the very first day of pre-season, and that was fine, we all bought into it.

"And then when the weather started closing in September and we were continuing to throw the ball around, come October you're sort of scratching your head thinking, 'Jesus, Pat, we've got to start rethinking this'.

"Ultimately, ego outside of it, we weren't good enough to play that game, we weren't adept at playing the game to the level he wanted us to. So it took us a while to get there, probably it took us longer to buy into the fact that this was the game-plan.

"You saw last year, when the crowd are shouting at you to kick the ball out, and at that stage we had fully taken to it, but it certainly takes a lot of guts to do it when it's the not the norm.

"And to follow the norm. . . you tell teenagers and kids to do your own thing, say your own thing and don't follow the group, but it's easier to follow the group than lead your own path

"Pat and the group have to take a lot of admiration for going our own way.

"A lot of teams are starting to do that as well. At the start of this season there's less kicking going on in the Northern Hemisphere and I'd like to think that we've had a bit to do with that.

"But yeah, certainly, it took a lot of guts but it also took a lot of what we call 'up-skilling' to get there, it didn't just happen."

October's stunning home win over Toulouse has only heightened the belief in the squad that they can pull off another memorable win in France this weekend.

"I can only speak personally, but I love playing in France," Muldoon insists. "In games where you can tell when you're rattling a team because their crowd get on their back. To me, you know you're doing something well.

"We did take confidence into the second game, and likewise this weekend. We have beaten them a couple of times; we're under no illusion how hard it is going to be, but we're going over full of confidence in what is a deciding match in the pool.

"I think French rugby is going through a bit of a transition at the moment. They're (Toulouse) certainly coming back in the last few weeks, as if they are the force they once were.

"To say, are we going over there confident? Absolutely. Is there fear? Absolutely. They are a quality side, so it's a mix of both."

Irish Independent

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