John Muldoon, the likeliest of heroes in the unlikeliest of rugby stories
John Muldoon was not supposed to be here.
He was not supposed to be the captain of Connacht; the captain of league-winning Connacht.
Muldoon only got involved in rugby because of his brother and his brother only got involved because it was something to do when it got too wet to play hurling. He claims a growth spurt was the reason why he captained his team in the Junior Cup and then played Ireland U19s. The truth is, he was a tough, stubborn skitter from Portumna and he was quite good at the game.
Still, if a sporting career ever befell him, he pictured himself as a hurler. A club hurler first and then, well, sure we'll see what happens.
Muldoon headed to Galway Mayo Institute of Technology and tried to get a rugby team going there. Flyers stuck up in corridors. Text messages sent out. At the first training session, five people showed up. 20 minutes later and there was still only five of them. Three headed for the pub. Muldoon and his mate stuck around to do 'fitness work'.
"Maybe we didn't have money for a pint," he jokes.
Galwegians U20s collared the pair and soon gave them a run-out. That was the 'in'. The 'out' was the making of him.
2002/03 saw the IRFU try to wind up Connacht. They were a drain on finances and, basically, crap. Focus on three provinces rather than mother four. Connacht fans, branch members and officials marched on Dublin 4 and a stay of execution was granted.
The senior players felt a chill wind. Gavin Duffy, Johnny O'Connor, Colin Rigney, Rowan Frost, Ronnie McCormack and more left. "I don’t want to sound cruel here," Muldoon once told me, "but everyone that could jump ship did."
The decks were pretty empty. 20-year-old Muldoon got his chance.
"My first game was against Border Reivers in October 2003. I got on with about 20 minutes to go. The Sportsground was pretty empty; there was no Clan Terrace.
"Looking back on it now, I didn't realise how big an occasion it was. Still, it must have registered somewhere because I can tell you all about those 20 minutes. Everything I did. Every voice I heard."
Muldoon can vividly recall the first five games he played. After that, they all 'mash into the next'.
The games have been mashing into the next for 13 years now. Depending on how Connacht fare and if his body holds out, Muldoon should surpass 300 appearances for the province.
Back at the start of 2015/16, when he was a mere 250-cap whippet, Muldoon spoke about the culture of family - of having each other's back - that had emerged at Connacht. He was only contracted up for another year and admitted rugby had utterly changed since his breakthrough.
The Wednesday [drinking] clubs were a hangover of the past, he said, but there was still time to bask in the life you were living. He said:
"Back in the day, you'd see a young lad come on the pitch and you'd say 'Jayz, I'll run at him!' When they come on now, you can't even tell that they are 20. 21. They're so big and physical.
"Rugby has changed and it has changed for the better but, look, we're always going to enjoy the odd night out."
Those nights out may have been dismissed as a bunch of lads, who nobody fancied as winners, playing hard and partying hard. There for a good time, not a successful time.
The drinks still flowed but now they were following victories. Giants were being felled.
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) May 25, 2016
Muldoon had the season of his life. Under Pat Lam, the team played a more expansive game and Muldoon was unleashed. He became a ball player rather than just the scrapper. He still scrapped though. Scrapped and fought and bled.
Lam likens him to a Paul O'Connell or Gordon D'Arcy and remarks he is 'a great example of an old dog that is willing to learn new tricks'.
The greatest trick of all was leading a Connacht team that flayed Leinster in the PRO12 final and claimed a quite unbelievable league title. To Muldoon, three moments stand out from so, so many:
"We had a couple of losses after Christmas and had Scarlets up, at home, before a break. Had we lost that game - and we had lost to them in Wales on the last play of the game - we might have faltered. But we won and we won with a bonus point. After that, we went on a run of wins and picked up 28 points out of a possible 30.
"Beating Leinster at home was huge. After that break people told us 'All the big games are coming'. They expected us to falter. Then we went and lost to Grenoble in one of the great games. Tries everywhere. We faced Munster next and they came out flying. We were 14-3 down but turned it on. Within 10 massive minutes we got over twice and were 21-14 up. We didn't look back. People stood up in that game."
The third moment, for Muldoon, came on the Tuesday after the league was won.
He dragged himself away from the revelries at An Pucan and The Spanish Arches and said down with a few friends to watch the game back.
"We had some friends around, got some food and watched the game. I was sitting there like a Cheshire Cat. It's the one and only time I was watched it back. Yeah... Cheshire Cat."
Muldoon was grinning broadly at the Guinness PRO12 launch as he floated between media pods in the Aviva Stadium's West Stand. Lam told us about a try he scored against Clontarf in pre-season and Muldoon, a few feet back, chipped in that the fullback he had burned off would never live the shame down.
The gold league-winners badge there for all to see as he folded his arms and flexed the left bicep.
There won't be many more days. Muldoon knows. He has signed up for one more year with Connacht. He said:
"As long as I am contributing to the team and my form is good, I'll continue.
"At the end of the day, I know I am pushing on in age. I can't be greedy."
One more year of chasing highs. This life was always for him. He didn't know it then but he has known it for a long, long time.
*Muldoon, Kieran Marmion and Denis Buckley will be part of the Mazda & Connacht Rugby Clinic at Carton House on Sunday October 9. The clinic will provide an opportunity for young rugby enthusiasts to practice and finesse their skills with some of Ireland’s top players.
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