'It has been a long time since I've had my hands on silverware'
Veteran back-row keen to see Lam's preference for flair over brawn gain its ultimate reward
Published 06/05/2016 | 02:30
John Muldoon never had the size to compete with the colossal No 8s in the modern game. But with great work-rate and determination, at 33, he has become one of the best exponents in the art of back-row play.
'Mul' has taken it up a notch under Pat Lam in recent years, and in 2015-16 he has looked reborn as he leads Connacht to the brink of Pro12 glory.
From the outside looking in, everything seems to have improved - fitness wise, he just keeps on running, skill-wise, his passing and off-loading capabilities have a certain Kiwi look, and the gainline breaking runs have been added to the repertoire.
The Portumna native and Connacht captain - in his 13th season as part of the senior set-up having made his debut way back in the 2003-04 campaign, and with 211 caps and 18 tries for the westerners - has enjoyed the brief highs but also the many lows.
This season both he and Connacht have become consistent, a quality that has been missing out west in the past and he attributes everything to Pat Lam and the game-plan he has put in place.
"There's two different types of back-row forwards. You have got someone along the lines of Billy Vunipola, you've got your Nick Williams, your Rocky Elsoms, your Sean O'Briens, big-carrying back-rows, over the years.
"They are all players who physically dominate opposition, who run hard and are big, big men and get you over the gainline. I have never been that type of player. With me and the physical make-up of the young Connacht players and the lads that are in our team, it means that we are not really that type of side.
"When Pat arrived first he said we were the smallest forward pack he had dealt with. Obviously he had been coming from New Zealand, who are all massive men. He was used to having big marauding back-rows.
"Pat has adapted the game-plan and the style of play to suit what he has. The likes of Eoin McKeon, myself, Eoghan Masterson, we are not big, big men but we do have big fitness levels and we can get around the park quite well so the game-plan was adapted to suit all of us," says Muldoon.
Muldoon, who has three Irish caps, has played 24 times for Connacht this season. With no major injury concerns, he is a focal point of the Connacht pack.
He was always been known for his gritty determination and willingness to put his body about. But there are more eloquent aspects to his game this season, and again everything relates back to how the team are set-up to play with ball in hand.
"We're more focused on getting around the park and the skill level of it now, and that has really suit us guys in the back row. People have said recently that my skills have improved. I think it's more down to the game-plan, and how it has changed. It's allowed us to have more freedom and to use our skills a lot more than we have done in the past.
"Back in previous reigns with the bad weather that we have in Connacht, we would probably be afraid to make too many passes and afraid to go against the conditions. With Pat we have up-skilled how we play the game. If mistakes happen they happen, we try to minimise them and up-skill.
"That has allowed me to get on the ball a little bit more freely in open spaces. The way we play, everyone has figured out how we are playing, but the skill level has improved, and it allows me to have a little bit more space and it allows us back-rows to have a little bit more freedom.
"From our point of view we are enjoying our rugby at the moment too. There is a lot to be said for enjoying it and being out there and giving a bit of a free rein.
"One of Pat's mantras is: 'do you defend or do you want to attack?' If we keep attacking, it's a lot easier to do that than defend. It's an enjoyable place to be, it's nice to be in the hunt in a semi-final at the moment. It's good."
And in the week that Leicester City claimed their first-ever Premier League title, Connacht are entering their own form of the unknown, as they prepare for the Pro12 play-offs later this month.
But first they need to negotiate a tricky tie against the in-form reigning champions Glasgow, who scored 70 points last weekend.
In the past, Connacht would have been over-whelming underdogs in a game like this. But in the past, Connacht rarely had anything to play for on the final day of the season, especially the carrot of a home semi-final.
As a proud Galwegian, Muldoon would know more than anyone how much that would do for the city, county and province. It's a tremendous prize, and could take them one step closer to the ultimate goal - silverware.
"I haven't won anything since playing with the Connacht U-21s in the early 2000s," says Muldoon.
"I have said it for a few weeks now, Glasgow, Leinster, Ulster, Scarlets whoever get into the top four. They are huge teams, and they have big-name players for big occasions. I am sure none of them would be afraid to come to the Sportsground or would be afraid to play Connacht.
"But we have put ourselves in a good position now and it would be absolutely massive to get some silverware."