Wednesday 29 March 2017

'It's where you're from, it's who you are'

Connacht captain John Muldoon lifts the trophy following his side's victory in the Guinness PRO12 final against Leinster at Murrayfield. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Connacht captain John Muldoon lifts the trophy following his side's victory in the Guinness PRO12 final against Leinster at Murrayfield. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Connacht's captain John Muldoon celebrates with Eric Elwood. Photo: INPHO/James Crombie
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Last week, when Connacht were finalising their logistics for the Pro12 final, a decision was made that 46 players would travel as a reward for their efforts this season.

It meant every player used by Pat Lam this season would make the trip, but when John Muldoon was informed of the plan, the province's captain wondered about four Academy players who had trained all season but hadn't featured. The reply came that the line had to be drawn somewhere.

So, the skipper went into the dressing-room and did a whiparound so that the squad members could travel. No man left behind, the four youngsters made the trip and were part of the wider party that celebrated on the Murrayfield pitch.

It was a gesture that summed up the man who for many embodies what Connacht rugby is about and it was hard to think of anyone who deserved to lift the Guinness Pro12 trophy more.

When Lam arrived in Galway and began to get to know the squad, he named three captains; Gavin Duffy, Michael Swift and Muldoon. It didn't take long for him to settle on his "chosen one", however.

"I quickly realised this is the one," Lam said. "This is the Connacht man. This is the chosen one to lead the group."

Lows

Saturday was the Galwayman's 275th cap for Connacht in a career that has known far more lows than it has highs. He has spilled blood for his home province, but on Saturday he was shedding tears of joy.

There were times when he almost packed it in, he concedes, moments of doubt along the way, but in the back of his mind there was always a slim hope of better days to come. At 33, his day has come.

"You always believe, of course you do," he said. "You dream and you lift that trophy over your head every day out in the backyard.

"I've two brothers and we fought and we laughed and we did whatever and every day I might have been lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup, which is a bit different, but nothing changes and I'm just delighted. You always believe, but when you're going through tough days it's harder to believe.

"I've said it lots of times, I've walked in off the pitch a couple of times and said, 'Right, that's me done, I'm not staying here'.

"Unfortunately at times I felt we weren't moving as quick as I wanted us to move.

"I felt that I needed a place to move to, but it's where you're from, it's who you are and I saw lots of friends and family and neighbours out there. . . a lot of them aren't rugby people but I'm delighted to see them here.

"Look, it's huge. At times I'd be lying if I said I did see this coming but ultimately deep down you always believe that it's coming, and you always believe that you can be part of it and I'm just chuffed that I'm here."

The catalyst for change was the appointment of Lam in 2013 and over the course of three seasons the Samoan has redrawn the boundaries for what the least fashionable province in Irish rugby could do on the pitch.

On the pitch, Muldoon has been the living embodiment of his coach's vision.

"Pat has to take a lot of credit for changing everything, but he didn't come in on day one and go 'right, chuck everything out', he explained.

"We built from three years ago. It's a slow progression but it has to develop quite quickly. We didn't just throw everything out and go right, let's go from here, let's re-invent the wheel.' It needs to be progressed through the season, and even at the start of this season you see fellas out on the park.

"Pat sees stuff, and Conor (McPhillips) and Andre (Bell), even the players, and it comes in cycles. Teams try to defend what we're doing and then we come up with something else or there's a little thing that we tweak, and I think that's the best thing. We're always moving forward.

"Pat had a saying last year, 'the quickest way to improve is to learn quicker than everyone else'. Or something along those lines. That's the main thing, and it's driven by Pat and the management, but the players are involved as well.

"It does take a lot of courage to buy into wholeheartedly.

"I'm delighted for the lads and Pat spoke earlier about 46 players used. We had four players this year that trained with us, didn't get any game-time.

"One of the lads was on the bench for the Ulster game and for various reasons they had to cut the line somewhere and they decided not to bring four of the lads that hadn't played.

"That was obviously the management's perspective; 46 lads is a lot to bring. But the lads got together and chipped in and brought the other four lads, and that shows what the team is about.

"The fact that we're not willing to leave the four lads behind, and the four lads are inside in the dressing-room and they deserve to be here as much as anybody else, and that shows the togetherness and what it means to everyone. To me that sums up the group massively.

"Look, I'm delighted for everybody inside. I got emotional a couple of times. I thought I was done and then Eric (Elwood) came in, and that set me off again then.

"There's a lot of people who have put more into it than I have, and a lot of people are supporting Connacht rugby longer than me, and they'll be proud tonight and they'll enjoy this as much as we will. Yeah, I'm delighted for everyone."

Preaching

For all that they were enjoying the moment, the coach and captain were both preaching the message to the players that this is just a start.

"We celebrated after the match, but in the changing-room Pat talked, 'Mul' talked, it's about backing that up next year, we can't just be one trick ponies," lock Andrew Browne said.

"We know it's going to be a tough task next year but if we want to progress in the way we've talked about the way we know Connacht can then we have to show up next year.

"I've been at a lot of away days and nights at the Sportsground where it's been very hard coming in on the Monday. Today is incredible and if anyone deserves to enjoy it then it's this Connacht team.

"We want to build the game around the province, to every corner, so this can only go to increasing the number of young players playing the game and having more indigenous players lining out for Connacht and going on to represent Ireland in the future."

It was a special day for everyone associated with Connacht, in particular the natives who struggled through the hard times.

The sight of Muldoon lifting the trophy high washed away generations of hurt.

Irish Independent

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