Tuesday 18 June 2019

Sinead Kissane: 'Muldoon keeping hold of old Connacht fight for new job in Bristol'

John Muldoon says he is massively in debt to Pat Lam for the opportunity he has given him as defence coach with Bristol. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
John Muldoon says he is massively in debt to Pat Lam for the opportunity he has given him as defence coach with Bristol. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

It was an odd feeling for John Muldoon, to say the least. On a Friday evening last August, Connacht played the Bristol Bears in a pre-season friendly at Ashton Gate. Muldoon was with the opposition, with the team trying to take down Connacht.

This was the home club he spent 17 years with, played in 327 games for - the kind of numbers which will be hard to surpass.

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The makers of 'Sunderland 'Til I Die' missed a trick with the Muldoon story.

But here he was in his new life as defence coach with Bristol. There was no more than 15 minutes gone in the game when one of the Bristol players broke through the Connacht defence and Muldoon let out a roar.

"I was screaming at them to keep going. And I was thinking 'Oh Jesus, that's the end of me and Connacht when I'm screaming at a lad to keep going through their defence'", Muldoon recalls.

"It's a strange world how things happen".

It is a strange world. And there's no need to remind Muldoon how quickly rugby moves on with and without you.

Last summer was one like no other for him. Why have one life-changing moment when you can have a bundle: Muldoon finished up as Connacht player and captain on a Saturday night last April and by the following weekend he became a dad for the first time when his wife Lorna gave birth to their son, Scott.

Not life-changing enough? A few weeks later Muldoon left the county he'd lived in all his life to move to Bristol to start a new job as defence coach. His wife and baby son stayed behind in Galway at the start.

"Yeah, it was tough going obviously. You end up having two big life-changing moments: you leave a job and I suppose you don't really know anything else.

"I was talking to somebody recently and I was telling them that I've never actually sat in an interview for a job before and suddenly you're leaving a job after 17 years and you're not really sure," Muldoon says.

"So, it was going to be a big career change. And then to have a baby but not to be around the baby was quite tough. But it also gave me the opportunity to stay longer hours in the evening. In that sense it was probably a small bit advantageous but on the whole, I would have preferred to have had my family with me. I'm glad they're over now since August so that's been good as well."

The extent of how well Muldoon worked with Pat Lam at Connacht became clearer when it was announced in January last year that Muldoon would join Lam as defence coach at the end of the season.

While he was head coach of Connacht, Lam told Muldoon he would help him with coaching - so on the odd day here and there when Muldoon wasn't training, Lam would get him to coach.

When Lam moved on to Bristol it wasn't the end of his commitment to Muldoon.

"It was a big decision for Pat to ask me to go over with no real coaching experience. I suppose it was a ballsy move for him. Pat helps out an awful lot in the defence - I think he's never had a defence coach before so it's all new," Muldoon adds.

"I'm massively in debt to Pat for giving me the opportunity over here. But it's been great, I've been learning loads. I try to help out in other areas as well and expand my coaching knowledge to keep my foot in the door in other areas as well."

A new week in Muldoon's new life as defence coach begins before the old week has even finished. If Bristol have a game on the Saturday, each coach must email Lam their review on the Sunday in advance of the first coaches' meeting of the week at 7am on Monday morning.

It's practise with Lam that he has a meeting with every player in the match-day squad on the Monday. So how would Muldoon assess his own performance as a coach so far?

"I've made mistakes already, absolutely, will I make more? Absolutely, but I think we're learning all the time in terms of coaching.

"One of the key things that I've learned from Pat is that players and people learn differently.

"Sometimes you think that it's black and white and you've explained something to the best of your ability but it hasn't come across to certain individuals as maybe you thought it had," says Muldoon.

"And if you just keep saying the same thing all the time it just goes in one ear and out the other so you've got to be creative and try and say the same thing but differently".

Bristol are 10th in the English Premiership table, seven points ahead of bottom-placed Newcastle Falcons.

Last weekend they were beaten 14-9 by Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park (Ian Madigan kicked three penalties) with a display that saw Bristol keep the Premiership leaders scoreless until just before half-time.

Today Bristol are in Russia to play Enisei- STM in the Challenge Cup.

Unlike Connacht's unforgettable trip to Siberia to play Enisei in their Pro12-winning season in 2016, when their journey was hit by disruptions and delays of all sorts, Bristol 'only' had to travel as far as Sochi.

So, have Lam and Muldoon been regaling the tale of that trip to the Bristol boys this week?

"Yeah, they all know about it and the significance of it in terms for us. We had two options: you could be a victim of it or just fight and just get on with it over there," Muldoon says.

"It gelled us as a team and made us tighter and we still comment about it any time I see the players."

No, Connacht is never too far away from Muldoon.

"Ah, of course I miss Connacht. I am constantly in conversation and in contact with a lot of the players and even some of the management.

"I come off after a game and if Connacht are playing it's the first thing I'll check to see how they got on," Muldoon admits before I ask him if the grand plan is to come back some day.

"I don't know. I haven't thought that far down the line. I've spoken to a couple of coaches in the last few months and some of them are Irish and it's surprising for me to hear that some of them don't want to go back to Ireland as coaches. It's a long, long way, I'm only in baby steps yet."

What Muldoon does know is that Bristol need maximum points over the next two weekends to have any chance of making the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup. With the Premiership too, Bristol have to fight for every point on all fronts.

It's rarely been any other way for Muldoon.

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