Sunday 17 December 2017

Muldoon determined to erase bad memories

John Muldoon takes a break during Connacht training at the Sportsground
John Muldoon takes a break during Connacht training at the Sportsground
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

You may not remember the match, but if you saw 'The West's Awake' documentary you won't forget the scene.

In the midst of an agonising losing streak in 2001/12, captured by the flies on the wall, Connacht went to Kingsholm for a Heineken Cup pool game and looked for all the world like they had finally gotten a first win in the competition, one to kick-start their season. Then, with time running out, Jonny May slipped Adrian Flavin's tackle and scored a try from nowhere to steal the victory.

Players collapsed to the floor, anguish etched itself all over the management's faces and the frustration came out in the review meeting days later, when head coach Eric Elwood issued his impassioned plea that finished with the immortal line: 'I just want to f***ing win. Badly'.

A few months ago, John Muldoon was channel-surfing when he came across a repeat of the documentary. When the Gloucester scene came on, he couldn't relive it.

"I had to turn it off because it still frustrated me," he recalls. "I think the time, the circumstances involved in that, the emotion of being so near and then having to go on again for another three or four games. . . at the time it felt like the world was on our shoulders and every time we thought we had a life, something would come along and chuck us down, take the ladder out from under our feet.

"I was talking to Swifty (Michael Swift) the other day, there isn't too many of us left, you know? There's only a couple of us who were playing that night, there's lots of lads know the history but it's gone now. If we're sitting on Friday night with a beer in our hand, it'll be long forgotten."


Things have changed utterly at the Sportsground over the intervening period and this week Connacht go to Kingsholm for their Challenge Cup quarter-final with an air of confidence, despite some recent setbacks.

Unlike that season, they are fighting on two fronts: chasing automatic European qualification through the Pro12 and silverware in the Challenge Cup.

They might have lost heavily at Thomond Park last weekend, but the captain remains upbeat about a campaign in which Connacht have won more games than they've lost.

"When you go through 10 matches (without a win), nothing seems to go right for you and you get an air of desperation about everything you do," Muldoon said of 2011/12.

"Now, ultimately we didn't play as well as we hoped to down in Thomond Park which is a lot like the Shed in Kingsholm, two very tough places to go to. We know we didn't play to the best of our ability in some aspects, not even close, but after 57 minutes it was 7-6.

"So, we know if we get things right we can easily be winning that game comfortably. If we don't get it right, we're back at a level playing field and, when we get some things wrong we're losing 7-6 away from home.

"When you think about it that way, we should be going into this game with a lot of confidence, it's up to us to fix those things that we did wrong, and we'll be sharper than the game last weekend."

Muldoon spent the entirety of yesterday's press conference with tears streaming down his face, but it wasn't down to emotion or bad memories.

Rather, he got a rogue finger in the eye at the earlier training session, which indicates that things have stepped up a notch at the Sportsground this week.

This will be Muldoon's fourth Challenge Cup quarter-final but the build-up has been different this time around due to the focus on the league.

"In the past there has been that look to maybe two or three weeks ahead where you are thinking 'we are in a quarter-final and that is huge for us'," he said. "This has crept up on us because we are so engaged and enthralled in the league. We always said we wanted to do well in this competition - from the outset our goal was to qualify to the quarter-final and then take it from there.

"When you are in a quarter-final and you get a sniff of silverware no one wants to give that up to easily, so we want to be involved. Yeah we have a tough draw and they are probably the form team in it but at the same time. . ."

For all of his trojan work in a green jersey, Muldoon has yet to earn any silverware for his native province and with a home semi-final at stake, this is a realistic opportunity, given the Cherry and Whites are Premiership strugglers.

"It is great to be here," the 32-year-old said. "It is not too often you sit here coming into the month of April where you're in the top six of the league and you are in a quarter-final and potentially a home semi-final.

"It is exciting times for us. It is a cup, it is knock-out and it's a competition that ultimately we have done well in but we have no silverware to show for it.

"A few of us older fellas were sitting around the other day talking about 'wouldn't it be great for some silverware?'.


"Certainly I have never done it as part of a Connacht team and there is a few others that haven't either. So it would be nice to get some silverware and it is nice to be in a really good position at this stage in the season.

"We have a mix of both young and old getting a job done over the last few months but now it is a case of bringing that home."

Although the game comes too soon for Bundee Aki, the return of Robbie Henshaw will bolster the team, and he is likely to line up at inside-centre alongside Danie Poolman.

Mils Muliaina and Craig Ronaldson are also back in contention and coach Pat Lam will be hoping his All Black legend can make a difference in the most important game of the season to date.

Gloucester, meanwhile, are set to recall Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw and back-row Gareth Evans after they missed their disappointing defeat to Sale on Sunday. Connacht may be underdogs, but their skipper says they have nothing to fear.

"We will be bringing that little bit of confidence with us, the fact that we were over there before and did quite well," he summed up. "We are coming on the back on what has been a quite successful year for us and hopefully we can get that all together now."

Irish Independent

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