Some six and a half years ago John Muldoon, a newcomer to professional rugby, received his first cap for Connacht against the Scottish Borders. Back then coach Michael Bradley told the 20-years-old that he was there because he was an “all right” rugby player - not because he was home-grown Connacht. Today the Portumna man is one of only two from the province on the Irish team, and he knows he’s there on merit - standing proudly and taller than his 6’3” frame alongside Lions players like Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace, Paul O’Connell.
One of many unsung heroes in Connacht rugby down through the years, captain John Muldoon is now reaping the recognition he deserves, heading Down Under with Declan Kidney’s Irish squad.
“Pre-season I would have been hesitant about my selection but, when Stephen Ferris got injured, it shortened my odds. When I received the email I was delighted - you don’t want to see Declan or Paul McNaughton’s (team manager ) name coming up on the phone as it’s bad news.”
Although Muldoon was capped on Ireland’s tour of North America last summer, which followed his captaincy of the Churchill Cup-winning A side, this year’s selection is considerably sweeter.
“Last year will always mean something for me as I got my first cap, but you were conscious that the Lions players were missing. That’s the good thing now - everyone is travelling this year, there will be a full team, and the fact that we are playing Australia and New Zealand - no disrespect to the USA or Canada - but New Zealand and Australia are two of the best in the world, and it is great to be involved. It will definitely be a different experience and hopefully I will get on the park and get a game.”
Since then Muldoon has worked hard on his game to ensure he’s the type of battle-hardened backrower who can measure up to the toughest on the world stage. Ireland’s forward coach Gert Small likes big ball-carrying backrow players, while Les Kiss has spoken to him about his leadership qualities.
“He [Kiss] told me I didn’t have to be the best speaker in the world as long as I led from the front, while Gert Small has a very typical South African approach to backrows and told me I needed to get my hands on the ball more. I’d like to think I have improved on those things.”
Although Muldoon scored vital tries in this season’s European competition, particularly those against Worcester and Bourgoin, he admits by his own standard he started slowly.
“ I had a slow start to the season - I put that down to being behind everyone, coming back from the US a month later than everyone else. But I have been around long enough to know it would eventually click, and I have enjoyed the season, got my hands on the ball a lot more, and scored a few tries in the process.”
Scoring tries is not one of Muldoon’s priorities, but the 27-years-old former Portumna schoolboy says at the start of the season some of his personal ambitions were to be “involved in Irish squads, be consistent in form, and to lead from the front as a captain”.
On the Connacht collective front, realising goals proved more difficult.
“ The Connacht goals were to get into the Heineken Cup and to get off the bottom of the league. Obviously there are two ways of looking at it. You can deem it as a failure and strike each one with an X, or, as we prefer, you can look at the positives. Our home form was superb, some of our performances were super, and towards the end of the season we had ourselves in a position where we could qualify for the Heineken Cup by three avenues - two in our control. You look at other years and we have been out of it much earlier.”
Muldoon is positive that a good start to the season is half the battle, and Connacht let themselves down early on.
“At the start of the season we let ourselves down and didn’t get the points then. On the last day of the season, we didn’t show up.”
That final fixture against Ulster which could have been a showdown for the Heineken Cup was instead another away from home drubbing and a poor send-off for coach Bradley after seven years.
“I said to the lads at half time that we had been playing at a much higher level i n previous games and we were doing ourselves an injustice. But everyone was mentally drained. Although we wanted to send Brads off on a high, the lads were simply exhausted - mentally we were not there.”
Leinster, of course, didn’t do Connacht any favours, refusing four possible dates before forcing Connacht to play three critical games in the space of eight days.
“Everyone knows we have a small squad of players, and no disrespect to the development guys, but that’s what they are. Three started against Llanelli and did quite well, but they are there for the future. Throughout the year we were fortunate in that we didn’t have long-term injuries, but there were days when we had only 16 out training. Compare that with Leinster who post a list of players not needed for training - it’s a massive difference.”
That said, Muldoon believes players will have to push themselves more to ensure greater competition among the squad. The battles between Ian Keatley and Miah Nikora for the No 10 shirt, and Robbie Morris and Jamie Hagan in the front row were examples of the improved competition that can keep players on their toes.
“I know every year you hear us saying we had a great pre-season and everything is better, but I firmly 100 per cent believe it. We are getting better squads, getting the best training and using the best methods, but every other team is also getting better. We need to individually get better - we don’t have a Rocky Elsom, or a CJ Van der Linde - but as individuals we still need to improve. Everyone says George Naoupu is a big loss, and he is, but his arrival didn’t make Gavin Duffy catch high balls and make line breaks game after game.
“Some of the younger guys have to start pushing, because they have to realise they are not that young anymore. I remember thinking I was one of the young ones and realised I had 50 Connacht caps. I needed to cop on that I was one of experienced players and it does take a bit of time to realise that.”
The missed opportunity in this season’s Amlin Cup still rankles, particularly after Cardiff overcame Toulon on French soil in the final.
“I met a person from home recently who wouldn’t have a great knowledge or rugby, but he made sense. He said Connacht didn’t know how to win a semi-final. If you look at Munster, he said, they lost a few; Kilkenny had lost hurling finals; and his home GAA club had lost county finals, but they all put themselves in position again and learned from it. ‘It was unusual place for you and you will learn and hopefully as a team get better and stronger from that’, he said.
“Yes, it’s definitely with a sense of regret. It was certainly the biggest crowd in Galway and hopefully we can get a few of those people back - those who were there for the first time may come back a couple of times, and those who come a few times will hopefully come back on a more regular basis. Definitely we will have more days like that, and hopefully be on the winning side.
“There are some reporters and people out there who don’t want to give us respect, but the majority of people see there is life for Connacht and a place for us in Irish rugby. We are under-utilised - not in a budgetary sense - but if we are used properly, we can benefit everyone.”
Until then Muldoon and Cronin are ready to take their place in Irish rugby on a bigger stage when Ireland take on the Barbarians in Thomond Park before travelling to New Zealand and Australia. Muldoon would dearly love to get a chance against the All Blacks
“As a kid growing up I would have been into the GAA and I wasn’t a massive rugby fan, but even if you don’t know about rugby you always know about the All Blacks. My knowledge as a kid was limited, but even then I knew what they were and what they meant.”
Hopefully Muldoon will get more intimately acquainted with them next month in the country where his distant relation, the late Sir Robert Muldoon, is renowned as New Zealand’s most dictatorial prime minister.