Nobody could foresee this player was going to be Connacht's finest
Connacht Rugby was on its knees in the summer before John Muldoon made his debut for his native province.
The famous march on the IRFU headquarters had taken place six months earlier and while the green light had been issued to keep the professional team alive in Connacht, it faced an uncertain future and nobody was too confident it would survive.
The threat to disband the professional team in Connacht may have been shelved by the march on Lansdowne Road, but the fallout was huge.
The coaching team led by South African Steph Nel, who had seen three years of hard work go down the drain, had departed and so too had a huge chunk of the playing roster.
It was hard to blame them, with the uncertainty hung in the air. One-third of the starting team left. No 8 Colm Rigney went to Leeds Tykes, Jerry Flannery and Eoin Reddan returned to Limerick and Munster, Galway native Johnny O'Connor went to Wasps and Ballina's Gavin Duffy was snapped up by Harlequins. Four of those five went on to become full Irish internationals.
And it wasn't just the playing staff which was threadbare. Gerry Kelly was the CEO, I was team manager, we had two brilliant fitness coaches in Des Ryan and Susan Mitchell and physio Brian Downey performed Lazarus-type jobs on players every week.
But that was the extent of the non-playing staff in the summer of 2003. That was Connacht Rugby when John Muldoon turned his back on a promising hurling career in Portumna and came into the city to try become a professional rugby player.
Portumna, having never won a Galway SHC title until 2003, went on to win six county titles and four All-Ireland club crowns in a glorious spell.
Muldoon, having won an All-Ireland minor medal in 2000, would have been part of that glory period for Portumna had he opted for hurling over rugby.
His neighbours in the small townland of Gortanumera outside Portumna, the famous Canning and Hayes families, went on to taste all that hurling glory.
Muldoon must have questioned his decision to opt for rugby many times as he watched his neighbours and friends rise to the top of their sport.
By his own admission, his ascent into the Connacht team and his debut as a 20-year-old was no doubt facilitated by so many departures from the squad in the aftermath of the IRFU's botched attempt to get rid of the Connacht side.
But Connacht needed the likes of Muldoon more than ever if they were to back up their claim that they could stand on their own two feet if given half the chance that the other provinces had.
Here was a lad from a non-rugby part of the world - Portumna didn't form a club until after Muldoon had made his debut - who could make the grade. Not all of those who stepped forward could cut it, but in time players from Mayo, Leitrim, Roscommon and Sligo made the breakthrough and, thankfully, continue to do so today.
Muldoon, introduced to the game in Portumna Community College by teacher Dáithí Frawley and others, nurtured his talent with Nenagh Ormond and Galwegians.
The early seeds in developing an academy in Connacht were being sown back then and Muldoon took to the challenge with relish. Like any farmer's son from a GAA background, getting a few quid for playing sport was hardly 'work'.
Michael Bradley came in as Connacht coach in the summer of 2003 and instantly spotted Muldoon's talent. Like a lot of quiet country lads coming into a city environment, Muldoon let his actions do the talking. It was easy to like and admire him.
And yet, when the message came down from the coaches' box 56 minutes into our fourth game of the season to send Muldoon on for Paul Neville, little did any of us realise that the finest career by a Connacht rugby player was about to be launched.
Muldoon came on that day against The Borders and helped see out a 42-19 win, the third win out of four achieved by a side thrown together that summer.
Muldoon made his first start three weeks later in a 33-22 win away to the Ospreys and chalked up two more appearances that season.
A big pre-season campaign the following summer led by Des Ryan - he's now with Arsenal - bulked him up further and he never looked back.
He began to become more vocal in the changing room and on the pitch, while remaining, to this day, humble and friendly off it with no airs and graces.
There are many stats and records to illustrate his loyalty and longevity but, for me, the most remarkable of all is that from the start of the 2004 season, when he became a regular, to the moment the final whistle blew in Murrayfield two years ago and he stepped forward to collect Connacht's first trophy in 131 years, the province played 329 games.
And Muldoon, despite more than his fair share of injuries, played in 271 of them. It will take a long time to get used to a Connacht team without him. Hopefully, in time, he will return from Bristol for Connacht has always needed Muldoon much more than the other way round.
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