Magic memories will never fade for John Muldoon

Connacht Rugby legend captain John Muldoon, home in Galway, chats with Linley MacKenzie on that PRO12 victory four seasons ago.

Connacht Rugby legend captain John Muldoon, home in Galway, chats with Linley MacKenzie on that PRO12 victory four seasons ago.

In the first of a two-part series, former captain and Connacht legend John Muldoon chats about success, ambition, and life since winning the Pro12 title.

Thousands of west of Ireland rugby fans have been reliving the greatest days in Connacht Rugby when on May 24, 2016, John Muldoon lifted the PRO12 trophy.

Yet the former long-serving Connacht captain was having none of it. He had the memories, special memories that could never be erased, and watching a replay on television was not something he wanted to do.

Finally, however, he relented. Back in Galway with wife Lorna and son Scott on an extended break due to Covid-19, the opportunity came two months ago via TG4's Rugbai Gold.

"I was surprised to hear the number of people who hadn't watched it in four years, me being one of them. I had a front row seat, so I was worried if I watched the game my memories were going to get replaced by what I saw on TV," he says.

However, with family in Salthill and Scott "shouting dada" every time he appeared on screen, the time was right. But, he says, once is enough for now. He reckons the next occasion will be when father and son can sit down together "when Scott understands rugby and appreciates the game".

The fear of his memories being erased or altered were unfounded. And the man of the match that day still vividly remembers his own version of events, not least the opening try and the last play.

The first came in the 12th minute - Muldoon, having cleaned out a ruck, is still getting off the floor. Meantime prop Finlay Bealham has passed the ball, and the next thing players are flying past Muldoon, screaming.

"Tiernan is about to go over the line, and I am just standing there with my hands in the air, and we've scored the first try. My head was on the floor, I've picked myself up off the ground and I am just standing there because I'm so far behind play, but players are running in front of me celebrating."

Bear hugs

However, more abiding for Muldoon is the special moment when he and players celebrate spontaneously and quietly - before the final whistle, off camera, knowing the trophy is heading to the west of Ireland for the first time.

"One of the big ones which not many people would have seen is near the end. We kicked the ball forward, there was a maul, another penalty, and we kicked into the five metres, but we ended up losing the ball. But the turnover is irrelevant at that stage.

"You're always conscious of the clock, but never spend too much time time looking at it. So I look at the clock, 78 minutes, and quickly scan and see the score 20-10. We can't lose from here. And there is Brownie [Andrew], Bundee [Aki] and me, the three of us hug each other.

"I thought at the time 'shit, is that on camera'. But you can't see it because Ali [Muldowney] was in front of us. At the time Ali had turned around to us and said, 'cop the f on lads, the game's not over yet', but it was. We find out later Ali and some of the lads had also shared a moment about seconds earlier.

"That was the biggest memory and I didn't want to lose it. But I now realise it was me being paranoid, I will never lose that memory."

Head space

It also rubber-stamped in his own head why he had never left his home province, despite suggestions by close friends that he should find greener pastures.

"Some trusted friends told me I should leave. I don't need to harp on the reason I stayed. And then when we got to the final, we were in the right head space, playing the best rugby in the tournament and we felt we could beat anyone.

"When you have a team like ours with flair and ability, you believe someone can make something out nothing. If someone goes up a gear, you match it or go a little more. There was an awful lot of confidence instilled is us by Pat [Lam], and some may have under-estimated us. I never felt we would lose that game.

"To be vindicated for staying in Connacht and to have that pride, it was a relief to win it, it was relief for me to say 'this is why I didn't leave'."

He did two seasons later, ready to retire from playing and move into coaching with Lam to Britol, but still with some regrets - particularly Connacht's failure to build on that winning season.

"The most frustrating part was the months after we won. It was a bit surreal."

Muldoon can recount day-by-day the celebrations, and then a whirlwind of weddings, Ronan Loughney's in Kerry, Danie Poolman's in Portugal, and Conor O'Loughlin's. But when he flew to Portugal he packed his kit and had already started back training for the new season.

"The Mrs thought I was crazy. I was running up and down the beach, whatever I could do to get a sweat and break the cycle, to get myself ready for training. I did the same on the morning of the wedding.

"I could see this huge surge in everything that was Connacht, but we needed to build, and so for me it was go, go, go. I came back more determined than ever and with more fight to get better. With the eyes of the world on us, I had an energy to strike while the iron was hot - it was the time to be a Leinster or a Munster.

"In my mind it would take one more year of success and people would look at Connacht differently and players would want to come here.

"Unfortunately, I don't want to say we rested on our laurels, but I do feel there were mitigating factors. We lost key players, didn't get some we tried to recruit, and brought players in who probably were not at the same level. We also had seven playing for Ireland at the time, and had a huge injury profile."

Snowball slide

Ultimately, however, he believes the hunger was not there.

"It killed me, really grated on me. I remember specially one training session getting really annoyed at a player for dropping the ball, and they turned to me and basically said 'get off my back, stop being so negative'. But this isn't me being negative, this is me trying to make you get better, and it's not good enough from you'." Add in a reduced pre-season because teams pulled out, and he felt the blocks were starting to fall.

"I talked to Pat, said I was very worried, but he assured me. We had finished later, were still in that positive space from last season, said we'll be fine. We then came out on the first day and lost to Glasgow 41-5, and I was like "I f..ng knew it, I could feel it." Pat then announced six weeks later he was leaving."

There were excuses, he says, but ultimately the same hunger and bite was not there just two months after success.

"It killed me, because I wanted to be greedy, to win more, be better and for Connacht to be better. I wanted more. We had lost a few players, but I felt there were more to get better, and then Pat announced he was leaving and players were not happy. They used that as an excuse again. I told them, and I said it to Pat too, "I don't care Pat is leaving, he's made his decision, but we are playing to get into a Heineken Cup. It's about us building for next year'."

"You could feel some of the lads wrote off the season very early and it frustrated me, more as well because I knew I was getting to the tail end of my career. It killed me and showed that when people believe in something, they can be exceptionally good, but it they don't, it can be hard to change a culture.

"It was a snowball effect. Pat always used to say how you portray yourself in the morning can have a huge knock-on effect, and I could see that happening more and more with the body language of some people.

"It did hurt me a lot that we didn't build on what I felt was a huge opportunity and it frustrated me. I don't for one minute blame Pat, but, he had made that decision in November or October, and by then we had lost a huge amount of ground, the momentum."

 

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