Thursday 23 November 2017

Muldoon hopes to thrive on expectation after Connacht progress

Connacht captain John Muldoon is targeting a top-six finish in the Guinness Pro12 and a Rugby Champions Cup place. Photo: Matt Impey / SPORTSFILE
Connacht captain John Muldoon is targeting a top-six finish in the Guinness Pro12 and a Rugby Champions Cup place. Photo: Matt Impey / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

New seasons are old hat for John Muldoon at this stage but the sense of expectation around Connacht has not escaped the captain.

With more than a decade of professional rugby in the tank, the Galwayman is back at the starting line with enough experience under his belt to know better than to get carried away.

His home province caused a number of stirs last season, but ended in a familiar place.

The bottom half of the table has been home to Connacht since the early days of the Celtic League and through its various inceptions they have remained rooted despite their improvements.

Every time the province take a step forward, their rivals do the same and so their game of catch-up has been a long one requiring plenty of patience.

However, the reasons for optimism are rooted in reality this season after a year when Connacht ruffled feathers like never before.

Beating Toulouse away showed what could be achieved when things went right on the pitch, while the capture of Mils Muliaina caused a stir throughout the rugby world and caps for three of their youngsters, Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion and Rodney Ah You, all pointed to progress.

However, it was the growing discomfort in the corridors of power of the other provinces that truly marked a change in Connacht, with Rob Penney's public reaction to the signing of Muliaina and Bundee Aki echoed in private throughout the island's committee rooms.

At the end of it all, Connacht still finished tenth behind Saturday's opponents the Dragons.

After making waves, they now want results and Muldoon is targeting a top-six finish and a Rugby Champions Cup place.

Behind the scenes, things are far more stable and Pat Lam is a more comfortable figure ahead of his second season. Expectations are high and, despite a number of experienced players moving on, the captain expects deliverance.

"Every year we get better, but everyone else does too. We have got to bridge that gap by improving significantly more than everyone else, it's tough," he said at yesterday's Mazda press event in Galway.

"The off-field stuff has improved but, for us, the more important thing is that the on-field stuff is much improved.

"Our fans are expecting more, that brings pressure but that's probably warranted.

"We underachieved last year, but there were reasons for that with having a new coach and understanding what Pat wants and the systems.

"A year down the line we have to expect a bit more, we've been doing that for the last two months, putting pressure on the lads to achieve and our goal is to be in the Champions Cup. We have got to be in the top six, we've a few spots to make up."

Lam has used his contacts back home to recruit some quality New Zealand talent into the squad, but it has led to some concerns about the blend around the Sportsground this season after a number of experienced players left at the end of last season.

Muldoon says there is no fear that Connacht will lose touch with their base as a result of the influx.

"You've got to get the balance right," the skipper said.

"Last year we had that, we went out and visited clubs and showed the players who they're representing. One of the things Pat has always instilled is to know what we're playing for.

"As a city, Galway is fairly cosmopolitan anyway with its culture. It's very diverse in ways, so it probably lends itself to having some foreign guys in the squad, but there's never an identity crisis in Connacht.

"Gone are the days when we played the poor pauper line, it's a tough place to come and play, to be from. We'll use that, we'll have it on our side but we won't play the pauper."

Irish Independent

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