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'That's what we can do, and just f***ing back the lads! Sorry! Just back the lads'

Portumna giant's devotion to Irish rugby was not always recipocrated

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Connacht’s John Muldoon leaves the field with his nieces Emma and Lily after Saturday’s victory against Leinster. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Connacht’s John Muldoon leaves the field with his nieces Emma and Lily after Saturday’s victory against Leinster. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Connacht’s John Muldoon leaves the field with his nieces Emma and Lily after Saturday’s victory against Leinster. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

John Muldoon had no need to apologise for his final, defining act on the rugby field.

For all he had done in the game, scoring points against an interprovincial rival had always eluded him.

So when Caolin Blade set the seal on a record win with a seventh try, there seemed to be nothing else for it but to hand the kicking tee to Muldoon.

The man who had carried his team through more darker days than bright was owed this much.

"I didn't know he was going to do that at all," smiled Jack Carty.

"I think a few of the lads were looking to pop the ball to him at the try-line a few times, similar to the Racing game last week, but I don't think he was anywhere in sight!"

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John Muldoon kicks a conversion during the match between Connacht and Leinster. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

John Muldoon kicks a conversion during the match between Connacht and Leinster. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

John Muldoon kicks a conversion during the match between Connacht and Leinster. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Muldoon had spoken in the hushed dressing-room beforehand and told his team that today was not about honouring him, but upholding pride in the jersey and the province.

None of them let him down. And now, presented with the chance to deliver the coup de grace, he wouldn't let them down either.

Leinster's laughable efforts at charging the conversion exposed their status as a sideshow on a day swimming in emotion.

They may have let themselves and their supporters down, but they were ultimately outdone by a superior force on the day. Their season will continue its grand march; Connacht knew they entered the day with the not unreasonable possibility of ending it at the bottom of their conference.

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Two years after winning the thing, it would have marked a dizzying fall from grace, confirming a return to more familiar territory, not to mention souring the valedictory parade.

Instead, the sun shone, Connacht sparkled and the Clan saluted their King; the many embracing the one, eyes and smiles aglow with genuine warmth.

Magnificent

"I said to the lads before we went out, just do ourselves and do the group proud," said Muldoon. "And I thought they were magnificent today. I thought when we won 20-10 in Murrayfield (in the PRO12 final) that it couldn't get much better, but I look down there and 47-10... Jesus!

"To all the lads, to all the fans that followed us these last few years, that's what we're capable of. That's what we can do, and just f***ing back the lads! Sorry! Just back the lads.

"On one more note, I apologise for taking the conversion, it wasn't meant in a bad way."

The apologies were superfluous. Some in Irish rugby should be apologising, as well as saluting him.

Muldoon's retirement, in so many ways, throws up a poignant reminder of not only what Connacht rugby is losing, but also Irish rugby, too.

Instead of remaining here, as he always chose to do when saner souls may have abandoned the province - and as the IRFU themselves once threatened to - he will pack his bags and head to Bristol.

He may come back. He may not.

"I don't think that's my decision, the people in here and the IRFU will make those decisions," according to Muldoon, who added a typically self-deprecating addendum.

"But it's a win-win for Connacht; if I'm a crap coach they'll have spent no money on me to find out!"

Muldoon may laugh; humility underscores his political correctness for he is wrong. Connacht - and the IRFU - should have broken the bank to find out what he could do as a coach.

It might have compensated for the often disheartening lack of investment they offered to Muldoon - and so many others beyond the Shannon - in those dark days when Connacht was neither popular not profitable.

That Muldoon and his men finally smashed the glass ceiling two years ago was a celebration for so many, but the jubilation housed regret, too.

How good could they have been had they - and he - been supported so strongly for longer?

Muldoon managed to get three Irish caps, and what a wonderful achievement that was, but the sporting tragedy is that he, his club and their supporters had to remain unfulfilled for so long.

Muldoon's retirement leaves a massive void; the ultimate tribute from the team he leaves behind is to build on Saturday's result and kick on next season.

"That's a fair comment," said coach Kieran Keane. "He's an engaging man. But he's a humble man. That humility is a strength within the team and the group.

"They're hard-working and when they play for each other look what happens. It doesn't matter who you are. I'm right in behind that stuff, it spins my wheels.

"We're going to have a big review. There was a bit of lip service paid to it last year, mainly because of coaches going and different personnel coming in.

"We're going to have a very robust review about everything. In terms of coaching, in terms of the way we play, the players are going to get an opportunity to have one-on-ones and talk about the way forward."

This day was mostly about reflection, though, as Jack Carty neatly summed up: "I remember my first match, an A game, and I was still in school. I was playing with Mul', there was Keith Mathews outside me, there was Conor O'Loughlin and fellas who'd racked up a lot of appearances for Connacht.

"We beat Leinster on the day and I said to Mul' during the week - I'd never said it to him before - but coming off the pitch he came over and put his arm around me.

"I'd never met him before, and he said: 'Keep hammering away with all your extras and keep the head down.'

"It's been an absolute honour to play with him as a team-mate, but more importantly to get to know him as a really good mate, and I think that's the way everyone feels about him.

"What he's done for this club has been phenomenal and we're just delighted that we could send him off in style today."

Perhaps a winner less often than not, but most of all a warrior on all days, dark and bright, wet and dry.

Truly a man for all seasons.


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