John Muldoon will lead Connacht out on Saturday evening for the first time as captain when the province opens its new season against English outfit Leeds at the Galway Sportsground (6.30pm ).
The start of four pre-season challenges, Leeds come to Galway for the first time, followed by London visitors Harlequins (August 16 ), London Welsh (August 22 ), and Australia’s Queensland Reds (August 26 ).
It is a strong campaign ahead of the Magners League opening on September 5, and one that should provide a useful tool for coach Michael Bradley who begins his sixth season with the province.
With eight new recruits this season, of which Super 14 centre Niva Ta’auso is the only player still to arrive due to Air New Zealand Cup duty with Counties Manukau, it is expected all will see some action on Saturday evening - either from the starting line-up or from the bench. Interestingly, Ta’auso starred in Counties’ unexpected victory over Auckland in last weekend’s opener, scoring a try and pulling off a try-saving tackle.
Only one new recruit is a forward, hooker Sean Cronin, and as a result there will be a familiar look to the pack which in general performed admirably last season.
Crucially Connacht has replaced retiring and released players with some talented youngsters, and a couple of experienced scrumhalves in Kieran Campbell and Frank Murphy. Mike Roberts, the former Wasps and Glasgow winger, had been touted as a serious speedster a couple of years ago, and after a season out of the game, it will be interesting to see this player in action, along with former Leinster starlets Fionn Carr and Ian Keatley. Certainly Connacht needed to add greater potency to its backline with the loss of Matt Mostyn and Darren Yapp who served the province so well for many years. And with Conor McPhillips and Tom Tierney also having left, Connacht now have Campbell, Murphy, and O’Loughlin (currently injured ) to partner Tim Donnelly (injured ), Andy Dunne, Troy Nathan, and Irish A and sevens outhalf Ian Keatley.
Saturday’s task will not necessarily be about winning - although building a winning mentality is something Connacht need to learn, particularly as they head into another season looking to lift themselves from the bottom of the Magners League table.
Leeds travel to Galway also having finished bottom of their league, the Guinness Premiership, and as a result have dropped to the National Division One campaign. They have boosted their team this season with the appointment of Andy Key and Neil Back as new director of rugby and head coach respectively in an effort to follow Northampton with a swift return to the premiership.
However with Connacht set to face Harlequins next week, Bradley is likely to introduce some of his younger squad members on Saturday night. The likes of Ronan Loughney, Andrew Browne, Fionn Carr, Mike Roberts, John Hearty, who saw little action last season with injury, and Aidan Wynne are likely to start, with the more experienced players like Irish squad member Gavin Duffy, Mel Deane, Johnny O’Connor, Keith Matthews, Robbie Morris, Com Rigney, Michael Swift, and Brett Wilkinson, coming off the bench at various intervals.
The spotlight on Saturday night will certainly be on a youthful backline, fed by the experienced Campbell and Murphy. It now boasts greater pace, and it will be interesting to see just how it performs in its first outing of the 2008/09 season.
Connacht XV (likely ): D Riordan, F Carr, J Hearty, A Wynne, M Roberts, A Dunne, K Campbell, J Lyne/R Loughney, A Flavin, B McGovern, A Farley, A Browne, M CcCarthy, R Ofisa, J Muldoon (cpt ). Injured: J Merrigan, C O’Loughlin, D Gannon, T Donnelly.
Connacht has a new leader in John Muldoon (above ) who will captain the province this season.
From Portumna, Muldoon is a player whose style will be to lead by example, and whose commitment to the province is unquestionable.
At 25, Muldoon, along with his brothers Ivan and Conor, grew up with a sliotar and hurley, but were introduced to rugby at Portumna Community School.
His talent as an uncompromising rugby player who enjoyed the physicality of the game soon became recognised when he was selected on the Connacht schools’ XV. He played for Galway in an All Ireland hurling minor final, while also playing rugby for the Irish youths squad, before deciding to concentrate on a rugby career. Nenagh RFC provided Muldoon with a solid grounding where he won an All Ireland u-18 medal before moving to Galwegians in 2001, while also studying engineering at GMIT.
Muldoon made his competitive debut for Connacht in 2004 at the Sportsground against Border Reivers and has represented Ireland at youth, u-19, u-21, and A levels.
“I consider it a great honour to play for my province so to be asked to captain the side makes it even more special,” says Muldoon.
Coach Michael Bradley says Muldoon is an example to younger players coming through.
“He’s a player who has always led from the front, based on his workrate in training and on matchday.
“He has developed into a key player in the squad over the past number of seasons and has been excellent for us both in terms of his consistency of performances and his strength of character.”