Inis Mór native hopes World Cup stint with USA can open doors
Paul Mullen stares out his window at the Rocky Mountains with wonder every morning. It’s quite a change from what he’s used to.
Growing up on Inis Mór, he was more used to the endless water. As a boarder at Glenstal, he had to get used to the smell of silage and the rolling fields and during his eight years in Galveston, Texas and a short stint in San Diego he was back near the sea.
Now, Salt Lake City is the latest stop on what must be one of the most unusual rugby journeys of any Irish player.
Last summer, however, he found himself unexpectedly back where it all began. Less than a year after he played for the United States at the World Cup, the 29-year-old returned to the Aran Islands to help out with the family business when the season was cancelled.
He spent the summer renting bikes and working at his parents’ glamping site, pounding the local roads and working out in an improvised gym, all the while wondering when he might be allowed to get back to his day job.
“There was a lot of uncertainty. My biggest concern was the health of my parents, my dad had a health scare a few years ago and you want to make sure they are OK,” he says over the phone from Utah.
“The rugby season was cancelled and I was in the middle of applying for my green card, so I put that on hold and went home. At the same time, it was nice to be able to help out. I made the most of the situation because if that didn’t happen who knows when I’d be able to help out family again.
“I was working flat out the whole summer. I suppose the killer was not knowing. I was away from my girlfriend and I didn’t know when I’d be able to go back because of Covid, but I made the most of it and the vibe on the island over the summer was absolutely fantastic.
“Everyone had a good time, because I was working flat out all hours of the night to make sure they were happy.”
He is the island’s only professional rugby player, having fallen in love with the game while boarding at Glenstal Abbey.
Such was the intensity of his interest, his parents decided they needed to get his mind on the books so they arranged for him to spend his sixth year at King’s Hospital in Dublin and encouraged him to go to university in the United States and he found himself at Texas A&M in Galveston.
For seven years, he studied for his degree and subsequent master’s in Marine Engineering while keeping his hand in with the local club.
The Irish community is small and tight in that neck of the woods and former Ireland prop Justin Fitzpatrick got wind of the impressive specimen with the Galway accent who was too good for the level he was playing.
Fitzpatrick is involved in the nascent Major League Rugby franchise in Houston and offered Mullen the chance to play at a more serious level.
Once again, he put his studies first and finished his thesis before signing on.
Within six months, he was making his debut for the Eagles for whom he qualifies through his Boston-born grandfather.
“It was a huge jump in rugby standards. We played Russia, Scotland and Canada,” he recalls.
“To represent America was something I really wanted to do. I played USA U-20s and after that the Division Three. I was really hungry to get back to a high standard.
“Looking at players I’d played with at U-19, U-20s like Niall Scannell, Kevin O’Byrne and JJ Hanrahan – they’ve gone on to play for the senior team and it was more of a case of me wondering if I was good enough. I didn’t want to be telling kids or grandkids that I could have been good enough, I wanted to see if I had it and give it everything. If I was good enough, fantastic – if not, well, I tried.”
While he shared a dressing-room with some players who would go on to play for the Munster senior team as a teenager, none of them was making the kind of commitment he was to make training.
“At the time, I didn’t question it,” he smiles. “Growing up on the island, to get to Galway you hop on a ferry and then a bus anyway and going from Galway to Limerick was almost the same as going from south Cork to Limerick.
“Boat for an hour, bus for an hour to Galway and then another hour and a half to Limerick. If you were going to Cork you’d hop on another bus with the Limerick lads down to Charleville or whatever.
“It was enjoyable. I loved it. You’d head down to training on Monday or Tuesday, head home to work on a Wednesday and then leave again and head back down and home again for the weekend. I mean if you wanted to represent Munster U-19 that is what you had to do. A couple of hours commuting wasn’t going to stop me.
“From going to a school in Limerick, we’d have got schoolboy tickets to go to games in Thomond Park and you realise how big of a thing Munster Rugby is. You go to Thomond Park and it’s absolutely jammed. You’re saying, ‘Jesus, this is special’.”
At the end of his U-20 year, there was no professional contract on the table, but, even if there was, Mullen was headed to the States.
“My dad never went to college. He said: ‘You have to get a degree. You’re only one injury away from your career being over with rugby, so have something that if you do finish up you have something’,” he recalls.
“At the time, it’s heartbreaking. Two years in a row. First time, getting moved from Glenstal, where I’d spent five years and spent more time with these lads in my class than I did with my family.
“To be told, two days before you go back, you’re actually going to KH ... I came back from a tour with the Munster U-19s in England and came back on the ferry and was hit with that.
“The following year, I was told, ‘Listen, you need to get a degree and if you stay in Ireland you’re only going to be playing rugby with some club or on a scholarship’. They were right, but you’d like to think you could prove them wrong. I went to Texas A&M and it’s as far from Munster Rugby as you could get.
“Division Three rugby in Texas. Great lads, I made some fantastic friends, but the standard of rugby wouldn’t be the highest. The lads are going to rugby training for a few pints afterwards.
“I spent seven years in that set-up, but then the MLR took off in Houston,” he says.
Mullen wanted to give it a proper go. He got wind of a fitness trainer in the Texan city called Ed Cosner who had worked with the World Cup-winning Franks brothers in New Zealand. The 90-minute commute was nothing new, so he made his way to Cosner’s gym three times a week and it paid off spectacularly.
In November 2018, he was running out at a packed Aviva Stadium and a year later he played in all three of the Eagles’ World Cup games.
“That was my first time going back since I left in 2010,” he said of the Ireland game. “It was quite special. It was nice to see family, but growing up as a kid you’d go to games at Lansdowne Road and thinking this was phenomenal.
“Granted, I was playing against Ireland but it was special. What made it more special was seven days prior they’d beaten the All Blacks, so rugby in Ireland wasn’t far from an all-time high. It was the last game of the tour, so after the tour I got to stay on for a few weeks.
“The World Cup was the equivalent of going to the Olympics as an athlete, my parents came over and it was fantastic. It was tough, results didn’t go our way but I learnt a lot and hopefully I’ll get to the next World Cup and we’ll get a different result even though the pool stages are some way out.
“I’ve no doubt the MLR will bring up the standard of rugby in America so come 2023 the Eagles will be better overall.”
In 2019, he moved from Houston to San Diego where he teamed up with Ma’a Nonu but Covid-19 brought the whole thing to a shuddering halt and suddenly he was back home.
Such was the novelty of it all, RugbyPass sent a documentary team to film his time back home. The day they left, the word came through that he could return to the States.
By then, he’d signed for the Utah Warriors and he’s currently gearing up for pre-season at altitude while admiring the new vista that greets him every morning.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a culture shock, but I went hiking on Monday and you go up the mountain and see these lads paragliding – basically, jumping off the mountain with a parachute. It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen.
“There’s some fantastic national parks around here, a lot of natural beauty. It’s an adventure, something different.”
He has his eyes on another World Cup and wants to be part of the growth of the MLR, but having done a short stint at Newcastle Falcons in 2018 he wouldn’t rule out a spell at home if the offer came along.
“I haven’t had any offers to go back to Ireland, but I’d definitely be open to it. Never say never. Who knows,” he says. “I’d go anywhere, home is the island at home so it’s a bit of an adventure – I’m up for anything.
“To play at Thomond Park, that’d be a dream.”
Given how far he’s come, you wouldn’t rule anything out.