Monday 19 March 2018

Tony Ward: Muldoon will ensure Connacht don't ease up in their glory quest

John Muldoon of Connacht. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
John Muldoon of Connacht. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Watching and listening to John Muldoon being interviewed in midweek in the build-up to this evening's Challenge Cup quarter-final in Grenoble set my mind wandering. It did so because the Connacht captain is a special brand of player that fascinates me, whatever the sporting code.

Having played just two different team games in my time at a reasonable level, I am in no position to pontificate on them all but what I would say is that despite professionalism and all that entails, the role of captain in rugby is still central to any team's success.

As the saying goes, show me a successful coach and I'll show you a pretty talented bunch of players but equally show me that group of players and I'll guarantee there is a pretty special on field leader at its core.

I don't know about you but for me listening to Muldoon articulate his feelings ahead of today's trek to Stade des Alpes set the blood pumping. I shared a dressing room with similar 'go-to' players in my time: Shay Deering, Willie Duggan, Moss Keane, John O'Driscoll, Donal Lenihan and Ciaran Fitzgerald are just a sprinkling of players of that ilk.


Some were natural born leaders, others not so but they all made you feel better in whatever challenge lay ahead, safe in the knowledge they were there alongside.

Obviously I have never played with Muldoon or shared a pre-match pep talk but I know what I see and what I see is a rugby player you would want alongside in the trenches. Pat Lam knows and appreciates how lucky he is to have the definitive players' player as his on-field general.

So when the Portumna native speaks, we listen. Specifically, I am referring to the skipper's take on what lies ahead in Grenoble and bearing in mind they have already been to Krasnoyarsk in outer Siberia in advance of getting to today's knockout stage.

I hope I am wrong but I do see very definite parallels between the Europa League Cup in football and the European Challenge Cup, although at least the shadow rugby competition is not played on Thursdays and it does this year offer a secondary route to the next Champions Cup.

So while the other three Irish provinces are on a break from playing, Connacht face a massively demanding mission to south eastern France. Muldoon denies looking beyond this quarter-final but concedes to the carrot dangling of a potential home semi-final against Harlequins or London Irish. But more than that is the emphasis on what a trophy would mean to Connacht folk everywhere. If ever a team deserved a tangible reward for how they have gone about their business, it is Connacht Rugby just now.

They have put themselves in an amazing position with just three games to go in the Pro12 and at the same time qualified from Pool 1 of the European Challenge Cup. The imperative now is that they go at both with all guns blazing in terms of intensity and commitment. Former Connacht and Munster stalwarts Bernard Jackman and Mikey Prendergast will be looking to avail of this unique opportunity (with no other Irish involvement) to show what they and their team, currently lying eighth in the Top 14, can do.

I think it no coincidence that we have two clubs playing a broadly similar style of expansive rugby and driven by coaches deficient in ego. But back to Lam and Muldoon's undeniable desire for silverware.

While I'm not overly taken by the expression 'foot off the pedal' - a fancy term for underperforming - it is vital Connacht, just as they did despite losing in Belfast last week, stick to their ultra-competitive principles. With those again in place, and irrespective of the result later on today, the Munster bash this day week will look after itself.

Anything less and psychological damage could very quickly become terminal. Just like Leicester at the top of the Premier League, they've come too far to blow it now.

The nation wants Connacht to succeed and to that end I doubt if any of the other provinces, even on their days of greatest (Heineken Cup) triumph, have enjoyed such widespread support.

Of course sentiment carries little clout in the world of professional rugby but this is a different Connacht, in terms of quality and modus operandi, to anything that went before. I was there in Franklin's Gardens in 1997 when under Warren Gatland the western province pulled off their greatest win in Europe (when beating Northampton) to that point. 2003 against Pontypridd (soon after the Lansdowne march) in a jam-packed Dubarry Park quarter-final was another great place to be.

There have been European Shield semi-finals too with defeats to Harlequins in 2004 and to Sale in 2005. In the Challenge Cup to Quins' again in 2010 and at the penultimate stage to Toulon the year before as Jonny Wilkinson and the Mourad Boudjellal master plan to conquer the world was being put in place.

Perhaps as an omen that 2005 run to the Shield semi included home and away wins over Grenoble in the quarter-final. Different times, different teams but they've been there, done that on the European trail.

My own preference would be for a Champions Cup finish in the Pro12, to be followed by a place in the top four of the domestic league, but preferably first or second, thereby opening up the very real possibility of a trip to Edinburgh for the Pro12 final on the last weekend in May.

As for today, we'll leave the last word to the skipper: "If we got to a semi again this would probably be our most realistic chance of getting to a final. It's exciting times." As they say down Limerick way, 'you can chalk that down'.

Irish Independent

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