Sunday 27 May 2018

Comment: Departing legends both personified exactly what their respective provinces are all about

John Muldoon (left) and Isa Nacewa (right).
John Muldoon (left) and Isa Nacewa (right).

Eamonn Sweeney

So farewell then John Muldoon and Isa Nacewa. You can hardly imagine two more different careers but it's also difficult to imagine two more honourable ones.

Nacewa has won three top-tier European trophies with Leinster and will probably add a fourth before he retires at the end of this season. His has been a life of huge games played in front of big crowds in the company of sublimely talented players. Muldoon's sole honour from 16 seasons was the PRO12 crown Connacht won two years ago. Most of his career was played out on much smaller stages. At times it seemed like the definition of a thankless task. Yet his career possessed its own kind of glory.

The New Zealander is a product of one of the world's great rugby milieus. He is a past pupil of Auckland Grammar School which has produced more All Blacks than any other school and is the alma mater of Grant Fox, Wilson Whineray, Doug Howlett and Rieko Ioane. The Auckland team he joined in 2003 had won 12 of the previous 20 New Zealand championships and added three more in the five years he spent there.

Muldoon, on the other hand, grew up in the hurling territory of Portumna and was a sub on the Galway team which won the 2000 All-Ireland minor final. The town didn't even have a rugby club but the local Community School team was good enough to win a Connacht Junior Cup in Muldoon's time there. He played his club rugby with Nenagh and won an All-Ireland under 18 cup with them in 2000.

The Connacht team Muldoon joined on a part-time basis in 2001 was in such a parlous state that two years later the IRFU decided to get rid of it altogether. Muldoon owed his first full-time contract to the fact that so many players had left the province in the aftermath of this attempted execution. In his first full-time season Connacht finished ninth out of 12 in the Celtic League. They finished 10th for the next six years before climbing up to ninth again.

Nacewa is a player of considerable natural gifts which would have earned him a lengthy international career had he not, as a youngster, made one brief appearance for Fiji which prevented him appearing for New Zealand or Ireland.

Muldoon was nobody's idea of the next big thing. When he made the Connacht team for the first time his then manager, Michael Bradley, praised him for, "overachieving". He kept on overachieving all the way to three Irish caps. There should have been more had he not suffered a broken arm after making the Irish team, had it not been a golden era for back-row talent, and had he been playing for a more glamorous province.

Both players had a reassuring quality about them. When you see Nacewa in possession for Leinster you know that he will take the right option, doing the most intelligent and creative thing possible in the situation. At 35 he may not quite possess the pace of old but his contribution to Leinster's first try against Saracens in this year's Champions Cup quarter-final, taking a pass from James Lowe and powering past two defenders before putting Garry Ringrose over for a try was like a summation of everything he has contributed to Leinster.

Seeing Muldoon in action has always warmed the heart. The going may be tough and the road uphill but you always knew that the big man was giving everything. The man-of-the-match award he received when Connacht put Leinster to the sword in the PRO12 final was a crowning moment in his career. But perhaps that moment in the limelight might have given the wrong impression of what that career was all about.

Maybe the storming two-try performance against the Dragons at Rodney Parade in April 2014 was more typical. Connacht's win that night lifted them off the bottom of the PRO12. That two years later they were sitting at the top of it ranks as one of the great, and greatly under-rated, Irish sporting achievements of recent times. No-one did more to expedite that outcome than the bearded behemoth from the banks of the Shannon.

Both players seem to epitomise the provinces they represented. Nacewa's elegance, confidence and flair make him an emblematic figure of Leinster back play in its golden era. Muldoon's never-say-die attitude showed all the toughness required to keep rugby going in the West. The results might not always have been kind but Connacht have never been a basket case.

In their very different ways Muldoon and Nacewa exemplified what is best about not just rugby but sport in general. They left it all on the pitch, all the time.

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