Thursday 29 September 2016

Tip-six finish would be a 'good result' for Connacht

Evergreen Muldoon primed for new challenge as rivals bid to put ‘upstarts’ back in their box

Published 24/08/2016 | 02:30

Connacht captain John Muldoon (centre) with members of the other teams at the launch of the the 2016-17 Guinness Pro 12 season. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
Connacht captain John Muldoon (centre) with members of the other teams at the launch of the the 2016-17 Guinness Pro 12 season. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

So much for the fabled adage of the Shepherd's Tale. Monday's rouged night sky brought not delight, but downpour to Dublin 4 yesterday as 12 giddy and excited teams congregated for the launch of the 16th Guinness Pro 12 final.

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When we last saw them, Connacht bore the widest smile of them all, basking in Edinburgh sunshine as they scythed a gilded Leinster side to pieces before lifting the trophy.

"I didn't see it for six weeks before catching up with it for an hour or so," smiled captain John Muldoon, who extends his voyage into a remarkable 14th campaign..

"That's all gone for us now. We've done our celebrating. It's back to business. We move one. Our build-up hasn't been ideal but we have to live with it."

Even darker clouds have accumulated already for the reigning champions before a ball has been kicked in anger - or glee.

The cancellation of a pre-season friendly has dogged their preparations, while the squad were rocked this week by the premature retirement of Dave McSharry at just 26 - another victim of the sport's raging thief, concussion.

Muldoon is just one of those who have played a mere 40 minutes of pre-season rugby as they bid to face Glasgow Warriors for the third successive game at the Sportsgrounds on Friday week - one of a number of rapacious challengers seeking to put the western upstarts back in their box, to use a current sporting phase of choice.

"The surprise factor is gone," said Muldoon, who agreed that few teams will under-estimate his side as extensively as they did last term, even though they have shed their star player, Robbie Henshaw.

"I would imagine there won't be too many teams coming to the Sportsground and resting players or leaving some of their international contingent behind. That in itself will pose a big challenge for us," he said.

"The key last year was that our away form was so good. It will be difficult, it is not a World Cup year so there will be a tighter focus and we are also involved in the Champions Cup. It is a huge challenge."

Just as they did last year, the Connacht squad will set a bar upon their ambition: merely to qualify again, as they did for the first time under their own steam last season, for Champions Cup fare as a top six side.

From there, everything else will flow, with renewed hunger, one assumes. Connacht supporters may have felt last season represented a glorious denouement; for the squad, it must represent a beginning.

Greedy

"We set the bar high for ourselves," added Muldoon. "But the thing is that once you get that success, you want even more of it, you want to win more trophies, you get a bit greedy.

"Everyone says they just want to win one. But when you get those special days and you allow yourself a minute to think back, you start feeling that you want to recapture that again.

"It is going to be difficult to back up, it is definitely a big challenge for us. It is something we would like to think we are able to do but then every team in the competition wants to win it.

"We have to be realistic here: a top six finish is a good result. If you look at how the teams have recruited, top six would be an achievement. The ones who have recruited heavily will be vying for those top six places as well."

Glasgow, under newly-appointed Scottish international coach Gregor Townsend for a final term, will be the first challengers, live on Sky, on Friday week.

"It normally takes us about six weeks to get on TV and we're never on Sky," smiled Muldoon laconically, as he assessed the rather large target now on their backs.

"They've got a formula that worked for them," said Townsend. "I'm sure they've been doing that in pre-season.

"They always had that aggression, that passion playing at home; what Pat Lam has done is make them more ambitious and certainly improve their skills.

"The final was a great example of taking on one of the best defences in Europe and finding gaps and running the ball from your own 22. I think they'll have the same approach and will be very tough to beat.

"In the first half of the season no-one was tipping them to get to the play-offs. They had to build their confidence through their performances, and they should start the season with that confidence."

Connacht coach Lam agreed, asserting: "There's certainly a buzz around the place, a lift with what we achieved. But what the trophy represents is the hard work everyone's had to do to get where we are.

"It's even tougher now and the challenge is to step up, because of the target on our backs. There is no longer any 'underdogs' or lucky wins.

"I've been fortunate to win other championships but this was a highlight because if you rank the 12 teams in resources, budgets and facilities and everything, we are 12th.

"It just emphasises the work that we all did and I am not just talking about the players. The whole organisation did and it's a big boost for the west of Ireland. But certainly I am watching what the other clubs are doing with the signings.

"Everyone is boosting, whether it's playing staff or coaching staff, and that's the challenge we face."

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