Monday 20 August 2018

Alan Quinlan: You could kick him, punch him or drive him into the turf – John Muldoon would always come back for more

Connacht's John Muldoon applauds supporters
Connacht's John Muldoon applauds supporters
Connacht veteran John Muldoon has said that being a one-club man is what makes him most proud. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

"Ahhh, not that Muldoon b*****d again, does he ever f*****g stop?”

It didn’t matter what you did to John Muldoon – you could kick him, punch him or drive him into the turf – he would always come back for more.

Nothing could halt him from pulling down mauls, hitting rucks, making tackles, trying to poach the ball, and giving plenty of verbals too.

I was regularly labelled a nuisance, a bit of a pest on the field, and for years I didn’t know whether to take it as a compliment or not.

As I got older, however, and could see some of my most difficult opponents had such similar traits, I began to understand how effective and enjoyable it can be to play the role of Chief Unsettler.

Muldoon and Denis Leamy had plenty of run-ins over the years, nothing nasty, they were just two fiercely-competitive No 8s who wanted to stamp their authority on a game, opposing alpha males refusing to give an inch.

The on-field shouting matches between the two rarely disappointed either, providing snappy one-liners that could unlock the ingrained tension of those feisty inter-pro encounters.

Funnily enough, I never had any fights with Muldoon – despite the regular, brutal contact – but I always admired his fighting spirit.

There was a deep respect for the Galway man from the Munster back-row union.

We may have had different crests on our chests but there was a recognition that his love for his province, and his dedication to their cause, was as deep-seated as ours.

Unconventional

Muldoon didn’t start playing rugby until he was 14, taking an unconventional route to the professional game, and that probably contributed to his on-field attitude from the outset – he was desperate to prove he belonged at the top level, that he could mix it with the best in the country.

Reputations meant little to John Muldoon. And he made sure you were aware of that from the off, particularly on his home patch.

Heineken Cup winner? Ireland regular? Lion? It didn’t matter, he was always confident he could compete with the best for he had spent most of his rugby career proving himself in spite of difficult circumstances.

Muldoon has said that being a one-club man is what makes him most proud when he reflects on a provincial career that will conclude with his 327th game against Leinster in Galway this afternoon.

And that decision to spend his entire career at the province further varnishes his legacy as one of the greatest Connacht players in history and enhances the esteem he is held in by his fellow professionals.

It is not easy to stay with the same club for that length of time in such a fickle industry, particularly when the bad days often outweigh the good so substantially as they did at Connacht.

Muldoon wasn’t short on offers, other provinces came knocking, as did clubs in England and France, yet the Portumna man stayed put with his beloved side through thick and thin even though a switch would have brought more money, or potentially more international caps than the three he won in 2009/2010.

Declan Kidney handed Muldoon his international debut at the age of 26 against Canada in May 2009 while a number of Ireland’s Grand Slam winners were preparing to head to South Africa with the Lions.

A week later Muldoon made it two wins from two international caps with victory against the US, the blindside flanker, fittingly, being ably assisted by his old pal Denis Leamy from No 8 on both occasions.

Muldoon was the type of player you always wanted on your side, a man who revelled in the trenches, whose enthusiasm was infectious and work-rate astounding. I would have loved to have played with him.

I was delighted to see Muldoon get the international recognition he deserved because the reality was – with Connacht losing more games than they were winning, and so much quality to choose from at Leinster, Munster and Ulster – players at the western province had to regularly be producing remarkable performances just to get noticed.

It was a shame then to see that when Muldoon finally got his chance to shine when Kidney had his full complement available, against New Zealand in June 2010, just over a year out from the World Cup, that his afternoon ended in such unfortunate circumstances.

Going up against one of the greatest back-row combinations we have ever seen in Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read, Muldoon would have been desperate to make his mark in New Plymouth.

But sustaining a broken arm after 31 minutes, with Ireland already firmly on the back foot after Jamie Heaslip’s 15th-minute red card for kneeing McCaw, Muldoon’s international career ultimately ended in frustrating circumstances – in a sling as he watched Ireland concede a record amount of points against the All Blacks (66).

His international caps were hard-earned but ultimately it will be leading Connacht to their remarkable PRO12 triumph in 2016 that Muldoon will really be remembered for.

Loyalties

Only those made of stone, irrespective of their provincial loyalties, would have begrudged Muldoon and Connacht their day in the Edinburgh sun two years ago.

Seeing the back-rower, a great role model for kids with the loyalty he has shown and how he has kept turning up despite unfavourable results, lift that trophy represented a lot more than the crowning moment of a sporting fairytale.

It was a reminder to all of us that sport is a great leveller and often the hardest roads are merely protecting the sights of greatest beauty.

It was also hard not to be impressed by how well the Connacht captain adapted to Pat Lam’s vision for the province, and it is testament to his skill-set that a such a physical guy who excelled in the tight stuff was so comfortable becoming an integral part of a much more expansive game-plan.

He wasn’t just a pick-and-go operator, he had plenty of ability too.

It was much easier to see all of the great attributes Muldoon had once we stopped butting heads on the field; the inspiring presence he had around his team-mates, the refusal to give in, and how pleasant he is to be around.

Those qualities should certainly be a huge help as he begins his next chapter with Bristol and tries to adjust to not playing for a living, which is no mean feat.

It is a big first job considering the resources at the club but Muldoon looks a natural fit for a role as defence coach, and his relationship with Lam is almost fraternal at this stage.

There are plenty of technical aspects to coaching defence but first and foremost it is about attitude; a topic Muldoon could deliver third-level lectures on with ease considering how he has approached his entire Connacht career.

When you are in one of the key leadership roles on a rugby team you are essentially already starting to earn your coaching stripes through on-field organisation and by placing demands on those around you.

Defending

Besides all that, Muldoon just loved defending, picking himself up to make tackle after tackle brought him more satisfaction than most, and if he can instil that attitude in England he will undoubtedly prove to be a very astute appointment.

Connacht’s loss appears to be Bristol’s considerable gain.

While there was a time when I found Muldoon’s relentlessness difficult to tolerate, I can honestly say I am delighted he kept pushing – himself and those around him – on the field for as long he has.

Connacht and Irish rugby is all the better for having such an influential man involved for the last 15 years.

Online Editors

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