The Big Interview: Skipper has his eye on a big finale to a tough title defence
Veteran desperate to secure Champions Cup berth before thoughts turn to his wedding next month
This time last year, John Muldoon thought the current season could be his last as a professional rugby player. After lifting the Guinness Pro12 trophy - the first silverware in Connacht's history - it could have been the perfect ending to a stellar career.
But the Connacht captain continued to excel as a leader on the pitch. He has played in all but one game so far this season, starting in the back-row on 25 occasions and extending his record as the highest capped player for his home province and in the championship.
He recently signed on for his 15th season as a professional and is already looking forward to the new campaign but before that, he is determined to help Connacht progress to the Champions Cup.
Despite a disappointing league finish, qualifying for next season's Champions Cup would represent a successful season in terms of the province's main on-field goal.
Muldoon will lead the team in England next weekend when they face either Northampton Saints or Gloucester in the first of (potentially) two play-off games.
"It's important that we get this play-off win to get back to our home patch and hopefully get back in to the Champions Cup next season", he says.
"We want more of those big days out - for us and our supporters.
"The players are really focused on that and we know we're capable of pulling out two big performances over the next few weeks."
With last weekend's clash with Munster being the last in 22 rounds of the regular league season, it's difficult to ignore the end-of-season feeling to the campaign but Muldoon insists that the memories of Champions Cup days at the Sportsground are enough motivation for this team.
"You have to use those examples and memories of the big days," he says.
"We were on the periphery looking in for long enough before we got a taste of that top tier and this year we were so close to the knockout stages. We feel that was the benchmark and we want to go even further now."
A win in England next weekend will bring Connacht back to the Sportsground for one last time to play the winner of Stade Francais versus Cardiff Blues.
Home results have been mixed this season with Pat Lam's men winning nine of 14 games, but a packed Sportsground in May would be a huge boost in a decider with Champions Cup rugby at stake.
After that Muldoon and his colleagues will depart on holidays after nearly 11 months in each other's company.
"We know we get a long break in the context of what most others get," he says.
"But in saying that you're probably making up for a lot of long weeks and plenty of weekends. We get about four or five weeks away from the Sportsground but you certainly don't switch off completely as a professional.
"Of course you have to mentally refresh but you've a lot to do to keep yourself ticking over physically.
"For me, that could be meeting up with one of the lads and going to another gym or even going out to the hurlers in Portumna for a runaround.
"I avoid driving up College Road during those weeks and I'll definitely be doing that again."
Muldoon has an important event coming up next month with his wedding to long-term girlfriend and Galway girl Lorna Byrne.
"It's a very exciting time," he says. "Normally when the season finishes up, I head home to Portumna for a week and try help my dad on the farm or I do a bit of training with the hurlers before I go away on holidays.
"But this summer we have the wedding to look forward to. It only really hit me there recently how close it is.
"There is so much to organise for a wedding, and I have to say that all credit will go to Lorna for that side of things.
"She's been fantastic and hopefully it will be a great day with all our friends and family."
After the wedding and a much-needed holiday abroad, Muldoon will return for his 15th pre-season.
"Even though you know it's going to be physically and mentally tough, you actually start to get a bit of cabin fever when you're away for a while and you start to look forward to coming back in," he says.
"You start to think 'I hope I'm still in good shape' or 'how much have the other lads been doing?'. It's funny, you're mad to get away and then you're mad to get back", he laughs.
Muldoon is aware the next campaign will be a different one. The Connacht captain was one of a small group to meet incoming head coach Kieran Keane when he visited Ireland earlier in the year.
"It was great to meet him and have a good chat," he says. "There are some similarities to Pat in that Kieran is coming over from New Zealand, he's a former teacher and he's come through the provincial system as well as Super 15.
"He will be a very different coach in other ways and a different personality around the place.
"The Kiwi players in our squad have done a lot of digging with their contacts in New Zealand and all the feedback has been really positive. He said he's very honest and brutal at times but very fair.
"As with any new coach, everyone starts on a new slate and while there might be a bit of anxiousness in that regard, the excitement certainly takes over.
"What we really want is to deliver Champions Cup for the new squad and new coaching team. That is the only focus for us now."
Irish Independent Sport Star Awards
Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.