Last weekend's win over Munster was 'an early birthday present' for Connacht captain John Muldoon who turned 33 on Tuesday. Tomorrow evening when leading Connacht onto Arms Park in Cardiff, he celebrates yet another milestone, becoming the first person to play 200 Guinness Pro 12 game.
Portumna native John Muldoon, who has captained Connacht throughout several seasons in his 14 years at the Galway Sportground, has lost none of his appetite for the game he took up as a teenager. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't an easy place to come into. Getting up every morning with a bounce in your step," says Muldoon. "It's a happy environment, something new."
Muldoon is of course talking about Connacht's unprecedented start to this season - eight wins on the bounce, top of the Pro 12 table, a first away win against the Ospreys at Liberty Stadium, a first away win in Thomond Park in 29 years, and unbeaten after two games in the European Challenge Cup. Difficult not to get a little bit excited, but the wily Muldoon has seen too many hiccups during his years at the Sportsground - too often more backward steps than forward.
"I have been around long enough to understand things can change quickly, things can come and then go, so it's trying to make sure everyone else is focused and make sure we keep going, because we are in control of our destiny. We are in control of what we do at the moment, but it's important everyone buys into that. Go back five years or so. You had a nucleus of people - a handful of Connacht players and a core group outside who were brought in and didn't have allegiance to Connacht rugby, bettering themselves here so they could move on, or the other end, making a living at the end of their careers. Yes, there is a place and room for that, but it's about bringing in the right people, people who inherently care about Connacht Rugby that makes a difference."
Last weekend's win over Munster was a case in point - of the 15 who started, 13 had come through Connacht's blossoming Academy, including openside flanker James Connolly making his first start.
"It was an oversight by me that I didn't realise it was James' first cap, because he was involved so much last year and he's been the 24th man so often. I roomed with James in Russia and we spoke about opportunities and, that when the time comes, you have to be ready - that one man's misfortune is another man's gain. Against Munster he just stepped up and you wouldn't have thought it was his first start."
Like Connolly, Muldoon was chomping at the bit by the time he made his first official appearance for Connacht in 2003 against the Borders. He had been involved in the squad since 2001, brought into a Colts programme instigated by Connacht's South African coach Steph Nel.
"It was still the beginning of professionalism and there were only 16 contracts at the time so Steph took the South African route and introduced a Colts programme here. There were about 16 or 17 of us young fellas training with the seniors, my brother Ivan, Chris Keane, Ted Robinson, Alan Maher, Ambrose, Conboy, Justin Meagher, Oisin Grennan. We started in the June and trained for the whole summer."
Muldoon progressed the following year to an infant Irish Academy - eventually replaced by provincial academies. "I was up at 6am, training before college, and because I was the only one - there were others involved in sub academy- it was quite full on - three days in the gym, pitch sessions and training with Galwegians on Tuesday and Thursday, playing with the Ireland u-21s, but at the time I felt it was quite overwhelming, and I was too nervous to tell anyone. It was the early days of professionalism and there wasn't the same structures as there are now, there was no head of the academy, it was before Nigel [Carolan] took over.
"Looking back it was a huge asset for me that I didn't understand at the time. I felt a lot pressure and didn't perform well that year, playing with Galwegians or the Irish u-21s. I think I over-trained to get results too quickly."
Coach of the Irish u-21s, Michael Bradley, was also to become his coach at Connacht, taking over just after Muldoon had been offered his first full time contract. "There was a mass exodus of Connacht players that year, and I went in to sign what I thought was development contract, only to see full time on the top. I guess everyone had gone. Two days later Steph had gone too, and I was just 20 years of age with a full time contract."
However it was not plain sailing for Muldoon initially under Bradley's reign. "We had an OK relationship, but not brilliant. I know when he took over I had thought 'oh no'. Later Brads told me I was hitting my ceiling and a year later that I was overachieving."
It did not deter Muldoon, whose "resolve and passion" were eventually awarded with a first official cap against the Borders in 2003, but his career was not about to take off as he had hoped. After coming on as a sub against the Borders in the last 20 minutes, he made his first start against the Ospreys in St Helen's, but would only appear twice again in the Celtic League - making his second start February 2004 in an away win over Edinburgh, and from the bench away to the Borders.
"I thought I did quite well, a couple of turnovers, try-saving tackle in the corner, and I remember thinking I might be involved next week, but I was dropped and was disappointed. I went back to Galwegians to play and injured my ankle and was out for six months. I remember maybe three weeks or a month afterwards there was a full day of contract talks when I'd be told if I was being kept or not - it was one of my lowest points."
Living with fellow teammate Ray Hogan with whom he had played underage rugby in Nenagh, Muldoon recalls the two being in the gym at the Sportsground with his future on the line.
" I thought I was gone. One of my best friends was getting a two year contract [Hogan] and another was starting or involved every week [Conor O'Loughln]. I had only had three games, I was injured, and I didn't have the best relationship with Brads."
However, after surviving that year's contract talks, Muldoon's injury proved a blessing.
"I probably wasn't big enough or strong enough. I had been putting in a lot of effort, coming in on days off, and doing extras, but that six months of injury I was doing two sessions a day and I stacked on a stone. It probably helped me to be able to play professional rugby because I was physically stronger. It probably proved a turning point in my career although I didn't realise it at the time. It's different now because young players get their bodies ready much earlier.
Injury provides breakthrough
'"2004/5 was my breakthrough year. Despite being dropped seven or eight times, I ended up playing most of them because people got injured. Every week I would play in a different position in the back row and people would say to me: 'fair play, you're playing every week', but because I was young and insecure I never told anyone outside Connacht Rugby that I had actually been dropped. Even with my family, I wouldn't tell them, I'd say nothing, and by Thursday, someone would have pulled out and I'd be playing."
That season Muldoon did enough to seal his place in the team as first choice blindside. "It took a while for me to get there, but I think that year in the u-21s had clouded his [Bradley's] judgment. He might say it's different, but that is what it felt like to me."
Ten years later, and having been rewarded with three Ireland caps at a time when there was a surfeit of top quality backrow players, the highlights in a long career are few but memorable - a win over Toulouse, Munster at home in 2008, Michael's Swift's try against Leinster, Bourgoin, and the visit of South Africa, which provided a taste of the future if Connacht succeeded - a big crowd, great buzz, and a big occasion. There is also the home draw with Glasgow in 2012 - played a couple of days after a close friend David O'Hara had unexpectedly died - "in the context of the week, that game lives in my memory".
All throughout Muldoon has remained Connacht's role model - a leader who epitomises strength, resolve, leadership, loyalty, and hard work. "I'm not athletically the best in the gym or the strongest, but I work quite hard, and have always worked hard. You have to if you want something enough, and you have to have some athletic ability. I wouldn't be like Matt Healy or Rodney Ah You who have freakish athletic ability, but in terms of resolve, and stubbornness, well, I've had a good few knocks in my career."
A more mature Muldoon admits to sentimentality - and a few regrets."Obviously everyone wants to play for Ireland and I would love to be sitting here with 50 caps. Do I think if I was starting my career now, I could have? Honestly I do because the structures are now in place in Connacht. If I'm being honest, I don't know if ever we were taken that seriously in the first few years I was here."
And like many Connacht players Muldoon had the chance to switch clubs, but remained in the west.
"Why didn't I go? Stupidity, a sense of home, loyalty probably. It crossed my mind more than a handful of times, and I remember going home one Christmas telling my family I was moving. They all agreed it was time to move on. It was quite early in my career, and I was getting offers from other teams inside Ireland and outside. It was hard because I wanted to be here and be part of something, but the place wasn't coming on as quickly as I wanted. We'd take two steps forward, lose a key player, and take two backwards. We were getting better, but other teams were getting better faster. They could bring in a top international and we were looking at a young fellow not knowing if he'd be any good or not.
"Probably the over-riding reason I haven't left is that I had put so much of myself into it, a bit like Swifty. I had a couple of drinks with him after Munster, and you could tell he was delighted, but a part of him was jealous. If I'd gone to London or wherever, and Connacht started to do something, it would have broken me, not out of jealousy, but wanting to be part of it. I love Galway. I've been here since 2000 in college, and I love the city and everything about it. There is something unique about being here."
Muldoon, still ambitious for his province, hits a new high in his career tomorrow, while, with some 258 caps, he is still chasing Michael Swift's record of 269.
"I've been telling Swifty that I'm coming for him. We sat opposite each other in the dressing room corner for ten years, and I always admired him. I probably never said this to him, but I admired him most when he hit 30, and he was within a hair's breath of being let go - a six who was trying to make the transition to second row. Still without a contract, Swifty came on as a replacement and started killing people, and suddenly for the next six years, you couldn't go on the pitch without him. I admired that from the adversity of just about finishing his career, he was getting better and better, and breaking records."
Muldoon is now "hoping" not only to break Swifty's record this season, but also hit the 300 mark. "At 33 when you say you want some 40 more caps is all very well, but achieving it is another. I’m enjoying it, my body’s good, and I’ve been quite fortunate that I haven’t had an awful lot of big injuries. The hunger’s still there, and as long as the hunger’s there, I’ll keep playing on.
"Yes, a little part of me is frustrated, but another part of me is happy I have been here and been part of that progression. It makes me wonder why on earth other people could not see the opportunities that you can have in Connacht. I have a lot to thank Connacht Rugby for - I was allowed to progress here."