Connacht Rugby giant prepares to say goodbye

I will never replace that feeling, that atmosphere, and that connection you have with people when you play rugby' - John Muldoon.

John Muldoon - a player with no regrets after 17 years with Connacht Rugby - plays his final match at the Galway Sportsground on Saturday (3.05pm).

John Muldoon - a player with no regrets after 17 years with Connacht Rugby - plays his final match at the Galway Sportsground on Saturday (3.05pm).

It is the last game of the season for Connacht, but when Leinster roll into town on Saturday, the occasion is all about one Connacht legend, John Muldoon.

After 17 years, the one-club Muldoon will hang up his well worn boots in the Sportsground dressing room having made his 327th appearance for Connacht. It is an extraordinary feat which ensures Muldoon remains the most capped player in the PRO14 - not bad for the lad from Portumna who confesses he knew from day one he wasn't the best rugby player in the world.

But smart and stubborn, hardworking and intelligent, passionate and modest, Muldoon will always be a icon in the west of Ireland - the leader and the player who deserved to lift the PRO12 trophy for Connacht after years of "dark days". And it was that prize which always kept Muldoon at home rather than tempting offers in England or France.

"It would have killed me not to be part of a team that lifted the trophy [PRO12]," he says. "While it is not the be-all and end-all of every success, it makes a difference. That is what inspires kids to play and pull on green jerseys in the future.

"I'm now 35 years of age, and I probably have 30 odd years to make some money. I have memories with friends, with family, and the pride of where I am from which probably has affected my bank balance, but life is for living. If I was stuck in a house or an apartment in the south of France, and while I might have a great tan, I might have had huge regrets if I was not part of that day a couple of years ago.

"I have had a lot of bad days, but I genuinely felt sorry for the people before me, those who had missed out. They had put loads into the jersey, some more than me, and I was the one at the centre lifting the trophy when people and good friends were not there to experience it. You take stock and think, 'aren't I lucky to be here, privileged to be lifting the trophy', although it would not have bothered me if it had been someone else."

Faith rewarded

Muldoon's faith in Connacht was rewarded with the trophy, always believing Connacht were and are still, good enough, and with or without the trophy, the fans will always love Mul, and Mul loves everything about Connacht and the Sportsground - they embody each other. And that is what the 35-years-old will miss the most when he joins up with Pat Lam in Bristol as a defence coach.

"The fact that I'm going into a professional rugby environment lessens the blow the bit, but I will never replace that feeling, that atmosphere and that connection you have when you play rugby or team sports.

"I come back here at the beginning of every season. I've spent the summer training on my own to stay fit, and my way of doing it was to avoid the Sportsground like the plague, not even driving up College Road. But you come back and are happy to see everyone, there's a buzz about the place, you train hard for two months getting ready for the season, and you have bad days and good days, and that feeling when you sit in the dressing room after a game - you've seen someone at their strongest, and someone at their weakest, and you lay it all on the pitch, and if you're good enough, you are good enough, if you are not, you're not. Those days are gone for me, and I will never replace that with anything else and that is going to be tough.

"Even the day-to-day dealings with the lads. The dressing room is a very teenage environment, it can be funny, it can be everything you want it to be if you buy into it, and after 17 years I still enjoy the childish behaviour that goes with it.

"My wife has to remind me that I'm about to become a father. I will miss all that, and I will even miss those days when you are sitting there knowing you could have won a game. There's a bit of despair, but you have to pick yourself up and come in on a Monday morning knowing you have to improve and help other people to improve, and obviously I will miss the days when you sit down and have a beer, knowing you've done a good job and there's a buzz, the feeling that your body is physically and mentally drained, but you don't have a care in the world, sitting with the lads after winning. No feeling will replace that."

Incredible life in rugby

Muldoon, however, sought out the next best thing - to use his experience to coach - and he sought Kieran Keane's advice last November.

"I admire KK because he is straight down the middle, and I told him I was looking to get a coaching role outside Ireland. He said it would be a good option to break the cord for a while, experience a new league, different people.

"It is a huge opportunity. Knowing Pat and Conor McPhillips will help, so I am massively excited."

Before that Muldoon, who made his professional debut against the Scottish Borders in 2003, will play his last game for his home club against Leinster in a capacity-filled Sportsground - where other departing players will also be farewelled, including fellow stalwart Andrew Browne.

Connacht head coach Kieran Keane believes it will be a great occasion for Muldoon, who helped him "find his feet" in Ireland this season.

"It is the celebration of an incredible life in rugby," says Keane. " A single club, 327 games, a hell of an achievement by anyone, and I think it is to be celebrated because you don't often come across that.

"He's been a true talisman for Connacht. He has had 20 starts and four as a sub this season, so he's played 24 of the 27 games which shows the resilience of this man at the tender age he is."

After a disappointing season, Connacht have the added incentive of claiming a first hat-trick of victories over the provinces at home, but Keane wants his charges "to do their very best, and to celebrate Muldoon with a performance of which they can be proud - win, lose or draw".

"You don't often get the opportunity to take on a big dog like Leinster and we were probably a little miffed we didn't get it in Dublin, so we have plenty to fight for and it will be a tough contest, and they will expect nothing less."

John Muldoon will do nothing less. He is a rare breed, an endangered species in professional sport, having remained steadfast since joining the Connacht academy in 2001. And that, he says, is his proudest achievement,

"Being a one club man is one of my proudest achievements. I can rest easy at night and fall asleep knowing I have enjoyed myself the utmost in Connacht Rugby."

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