John Muldoon is no ordinary rugby player. He is a warrior, a Connacht warrior. Leading with his head, tackling with his heart and his soul, and loyal to the last - a one-club man. A rare breed.
After nearly 17 years at Connacht Rugby, he still arrives at the Galway Sportsground every morning with a smile on his face - rain or sunshine. And on Saturday when he lines out against Leinster, he will be given a deserved hero’s welcome by a capacity crowd.
Three-hundred appearances in the Pro 12 Championship and European competition is testatment to this Portumna legend - not only the player with the most appearances in the Celtic competition (232 ), but also having played the highest number of minutes - truly phenomenal for a back row player of the professional era.
Why has Muldoon survived so long? Simple, he says, “because I enjoy it so much.”
“The big thing is I enjoy it, and I look after myself pretty well. I fully believe you have to look after your body. I think that has stood to me over the years. I’ve flirted with a load of different things, yoga for four or five years, Pilates for about three, but I’ve always maintained that if I looked after the body, and the mind, more importantly, was fresh, and I wanted to play, then I would - and there is a big streak of stubbornness in me as well.”
There is also a brutal honesty that is likeable. Muldoon has spent half his life playing for Connacht - he started in the academy in 2001 while studying engineering, before signing his first contract in 2003 - but says he “probably wasn’t good enough”.
“Connacht Rugby had been on the brink of extinction, and I got a contract based on people leaving. I knew I was very lucky to get a contract, and I gave up everything to take it. But I realised early that I probably wasn’t good enough to be in Connacht. I’ve said it before, but I haven’t been as honest about it.
“I did work bloody hard that year [under coach Michael Bradley], and got injured and thought ‘I’m done’. On contract day I actually walked out of the gym session halfway through, showered and changed, and sat outside the office waiting to be told I wasn’t being kept. To my amazement I was told there was something for me - shocked, literally shocked.
“I put more and more effort in after that, and fought harder and harder, and the following season I got a lot of game time. The more I played the better I got, and from that season onwards I ended up winning the Player of the Year three seasons in a row. It changed a lot about my mentality and everything I wanted to do.”
Steeped in GAA in his home town of Portumna, his family has bred All Ireland hurlers and footballers down through the years, including cousins Brian Feeney from Athenry and Greg Kennedy from Loughrea. There is also uncle James Muldoon who rowed for Ireland in the 1976 Oympics, and another uncle with national records for tug of war.
“It’s probably the GAA-ness which comes out of me. I am very proud where I come from, they have been very successful and they deserve everything they have won, and in a way I try to bring that parochial pride with me.
“When there were a lot of players in Connacht who weren’t from the west, I tried to push the importance of why and who, and the reasons we were doing it.
“I certainly substituted my GAA background with Connacht Rugby and tried to influence as many people what we were trying to do was important, and it was difficult because 80 per cent of the people were not from here, but an awful lot of people brought into it.”
Unsurprisingly Muldoon clearly remembers his first taste of rugby, courtesy of brother Ivan who started playing with Portumna Community College.
“To improve his tackling, we’d be out in the garden and he was making me run at him, trial and error. A few months later I was playing in a junior cup team.” That first game of rugby was a friendly with Garbally College when “none of us knew anything”.
“I played No 8 because my brother was No 8 for the junior team - actually I said I played lock No 8 because I didn’t even know the positions.” Ireland disappointment
Muldoon, after just four appearances in his first year with Connacht - his debut off the bench in 2003 against the Borders - thrived in the professional environment, and he was selected for Ireland A on 11 occasions between 2006 and 2012, leading the Churchill Cup side to victory in 2009. He made his senior debut for Ireland that same year, playing against Canada and US, but on tour to New Zealand broke his arm. His last outing for an Ireland XV was against Fiji in 2012, when he tore a knee ligament.
“The reality is I got two bad injuries in the space of three years which was right in the middle of the time I was playing for Ireland. But look I’m a realist. Do I feel I should have more Irish caps? I don’t really think so, because when you look at the calibre of player who was there, Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Denis Leamy, David Wallace, Quinlan, they’re all quality players, all of them being there for years, played for the Lions. I was just in a time when backrows were aplenty.
“I am proud of having playing for Ireland, disappointed I didn’t get a few more goes. Did I have a few injuries at the time? Yes. Did that affect it? Possibly, but it could also be an excuse, and I am big enough to know there were lads who were ahead of me at the time.”
Muldoon, however, believes his chances would have been better had Connacht been a winning side.
“When you are up against successful teams, and the other provinces were, they were always going to turn to them not Connacht, and do I believe that happened in the past - yes I do, massively.
“The other side is results don’t lie, consistency doesn’t lie and we weren’t good enough. We were down the bottom of the table for a lot of reasons, and in many ways it puts into perspective what we have achieved over the last few years.
“A lot of that has been built by having people from the Connacht area playing and it means a lot to people. I’m not taking a cut at people who came here to play because a lot of players gave their all, and it wasn’t down to that. It was the calibre of player we didn’t have. If you don’t have the money, you can’t afford to bring in good players, and a lot of the time we over-achieved at the same time.”
It was during those days Muldoon seriously contemplated taking up an offer overseas, but kept faith that success could be achieved.
“I wouldn’t swap it. I have alway been afraid if I did leave and Connacht were a success, I’d miss it. But I wouldn’t have stayed if I didn’t believe we could grow.
“I always knew people on the pitch wanted to grow and be better, but I questioned at times the organisation, and that frustrated the life out of me.”
It was a period in his career where he does have some regrets.
“I was probably too hard on some people - around the time when I was most under pressure to leave. I didn’t enjoy a year or two playing when I should have and I regret that.
“It was the frustration and pressure I put on myself. I felt I was at the height of my career and this was my best chance to succeed and win something and I felt we were not progessing as well. At the time other teams had so much success and we could only stand there and watch, and that hurt a lot.
“Obviously I was jealous of them, but it was just so tough to watch them doing so well. I felt every time we improved, they could go out to the market and buy a Rocky Elsom, and we were back to square one again, and it was a frustrating time.”
Enter Pat Lam on the heels of Eric Elwood and a new IRFU commitment to Connacht, and Muldoon finally realised that long-cherished dream of success. Not one of the 34,550 in Murrayfield Stadium last May would begrudge Muldoon his moment.
“Most memorable, yes, not just because we won. It’s because we went on a journey and finished the journey.”
Time for tears
The arrival into Murrayfield was something all fans and players will remember.
“Phenomenal. There was a clear path from the dressing room door to my locker. I remember chucking my bag and walking straight into the toilet and taking deep breaths to try to recover. I looked up and Brownie [Andrew Browne] was beside me, both of us had tears in our eyes, and I said to Brownie, ‘I don’t think we need a warm-up, I could just go straight out now’’.
“I think everyone mentally had prepared themselves to win the game, and you can’t bottle that feeling. It never came into my head that we weren’t going to do anything else but win. Of course it’s bloody easy to say that now we have the trophy.”
Connacht have not been able to repeat that stunning success this year, but Muldoon believes it will have its benefits.
“I probably didn’t appreciate how much it meant to a lot of people who had watched Connacht. Oh I knew it was big, but putting it into perspective how big a breakthrough last year was for Connacht. I never saw it that way because I saw it building for three years, even back in Eric’s [Elwood] day. I knew if we could get consistently good, which we were last year, we had the potential to get that far. A lot of people just thought we had come out of nowhere.
“We probably won’t see the benefits for 10 years - but the amount of people it reached and hopefully to get more playing rugby. If you look at the women’s success, there are similarities. They have worked hard and now they are flourishing.”
Muldoon says it remains important to bring in key personnel like Pat Lam, Bundee Aki, and Tom McCartney - all of whom have made important contributions, particularly in spreading the game to the province
“I took it for granted that people wanted to follow Connacht because it was their team, but Pat went out and made sure we were telling them that we were their team - saying ‘here we are, here are the fellows, here’s our team, come and meet us’.
“A couple of months later we were in the Sportsground and saw those people there, and we are saying ‘hang on, this works’, and it took a foreigner in Pat. He got it right, it’s been a phenomenal success.”
Having finally won a trophy, Muldoon, the warrior, still wants more, and has signed for another season. Life is good, a 300th milestone on Saturday and marriage to his fiancee Lorna Byrne in June.
“When we won the Pro 12 and I was standing on 275 caps, and in my heart of hearts, I thought to myself ‘Jesus, I am just going to fall short of 300’, and I said to Lorna, ‘I’m going to fall short of 300 caps’.”
“Having passed Eric Elwood, and then Michael Swift, you get to thinking wouldn’t it be great to get to 300. At my age I was doubtful. After getting 75 caps in three seasons, you’re thinking, ‘Jez you’ve done well. But am I dreaming to think I am going to get another 25 caps at the twilight of my career?
“But it looks like it’s going to happen, so yeah!”