Coaching the coaches is key for Connacht

John Muldoon - still learning, passionate, and caring about Connacht

John Muldoon - relishing coaching in Bristol. Picture: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

John Muldoon - relishing coaching in Bristol. Picture: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

In this part two, Connacht Rugby legend and former captain John Muldoon chats about the new challenge of coaching.

John Muldoon, the Connacht player who for 15 years as a senior player never left his home province, knew his time was up if he wanted to pursue his ambition to coach.

A natural transition for some players, Muldoon, having cut his teeth as a coach with Galwegians, was blessed to be taken under the wing of former Connacht boss Pat Lam and moved across the water to Bristol. It was an opportunity Muldoon could not turn down.

"I knew before I retired that if I was going into coaching, I would have to leave Galway, and I wanted to do that early," he says. "I wanted to get away from Galway because I needed to break that emotional attachment.

"Leaving Connacht was a great opportunity for me, something I wanted to do for a while. Pat knew I was coaching in Galwegians and came to a match one day."

Muldoon recalls the occasion well, describing his half-time team talk as "quite animated". Lam and Dan McFarland, both spectators, questioned Muldoon's message to his players.

"I flicked open my noteback and said 'these were the messages', and he said 'that's good because it can't be just the ra ra ra'." Galwegians did not win the game, but a couple of days later Lam offered Muldoon the chance to take a drill at Connacht training.

"I saw that was an opportunity, a test. Eric [Elwood] used to say years ago that you don't know who is watching you when you are training, so you should always train at your best. So I told myself Pat could be watching, and it was a opportunity to show him I could be a good a coach."

It worked because as former Scottish coach Ian McGeechan had helped Lam transition from player to coach at Northampton Saints, Lam offered Muldoon the same chance.

Learning Curve

Bristol may be similar to Galway with a large student population, but life is different, particularly with son Scott and a second child on the way. The biggest change, however, is Muldoon's anonymity "no one knows us, so we walk down the street, go for a coffee, not one person says hello to us" - and the weather - "never realised how much better the weather is in the UK."

Working with Lam in the English premiership has been a steep learning curve, and one that keeps Muldoon at the Bear's Henbury training facility for long hours. Having earned the respect as the defence coach, Muldoon is now taking over as forwards boss.

"That's exciting - there's a little bit of fear involved to having my detail right, but it's too good an opportunity to turn down. Pat has huge strengths in his organisation, how he delivers his detail, and it was something too good to turn down.

"It's no secret we work long hours with Pat. It can be quite frustrating at times when you want to go home and you've done long days, but the detail Pat goes into, what we do, and how we get there is phenomenal.

"I don't think there is a better place to work, and it's been a great learning environment. While I am moving to the forward role, you don't just coach forwards. As long as your work is done, you can have an input into attack. You can't bluff. Conversation is based on all four or five coaches speaking and giving their opinion. That is what Pat encourages."

Muldoon, however, still watches Connacht games whenever he can and is still as passionate as ever about his home province and its continual improvement.

"I won't say it was lonely the first year, but you have a fear of missing home or missing out on stuff. We got RTE channels this year and it has made such a difference, being able to see games - hurling, football - being able to staying connected . Yes, it was good the first year to stay away and break that tie, now we get to see stuff, even current affairs, and that has helped keep me in the loop with Ireland and Connacht."

Up-skill coaches

His message for Connacht Rugby is to coach the coaches.

"We can't compete with Leinster - they have people, facilities, schools, money, so no point trying to use the Leinster model. But what we do have is a different environment, kids who play different sports who are naturally gifted, and kids who don't come up the normal pathway. So what you need is people who are invested in Connacht Rugby at underage who are good coaches and put time and effort in these kids.

"The number of players is small, the number of coaches is small and how do you develop that? You make them the best coaching group you can. You mightn't have all the facilities, etc, but if you up-skill coaches, and if you look at what goes on in all sports, it's parents who are looking after kids, so up-skill them.

"Those children will get a better understanding of the game. Make sure they are being taught the right things and they enjoy the sport. Make the sport enjoyable so they come through and love playing rugby, love going out with their friends, and love playing at a higher level.

"You see days like Connacht had four yeas ago, well, the rewards are not going to be for another six years, but you have to make sure as a province and a coaching group you are providing those children with the utmost to get to that point."

Kerry, he says, is an example - without a huge population, yet a tradition of producing Gaelic footballers, "because it's in-bred in them". Importantly, he believes, more ex-players should get involved in coaching.

"Too many involved in coaching may be doing the best they can, but they don't know the game, the skills, and the drills. They ask for drills, but they are not sure why they are doing them. If we up-skill coaches, there is no reason Connacht cannot be as good if not better than any team in Ireland. Yes, there are smaller numbers, but there are opportunities to make better gains."

So, he asks: "Do you give a man a fish or teach him to fish?"

"I think that is where Connacht could grow, getting kids to play, making them more skillful. The rewards are not short term, but you will see trophies like four years ago. Think about what you have, not what you don't have."

So does Muldoon see himself back at the Sportsground coaching?

"I'd love to move back to Galway, and who wouldn't like to coach Connacht down the line? But a lot of things have to happen. I have a lot of work to do in my new job and a lot of uncertainties. In seven or eight months, Pat might say it is not working, etc. I have a lot of stuff to learn and experience to gain before I can even consider going for a job like that.

"I certainly haven't sat down and thought I'm going to be the head coach of Connacht in six, eight or 10 years time. Defence and forwards were the two jobs I always wanted to do, and I haven't thought about coming back.

"Would I like to, of course, but everything would have to be right for that to happen. I certainly wouldn't feel I have to be a head coach to come back to Connacht. Ultimately it is my home. Galway is very special to me, we bought a house in Salthill four years ago and 'it's still a heap'. This will always be our home, our forever home. Ultimately this is where we will always come back to."a


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