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Connacht’s John Muldoon: ‘The lads will be on it on Saturday night. No doubt’

Muldoon admitted that his five years as a defence and forwards coach at Bristol to being back with his former province has been ‘a huge learning curve for me’

Over 15 seasons with his home province he became a veritable Connacht legend. In his second of two prolonged stints as captain, he led them to their historic Pro12 triumph and his 327 appearances remains a Connacht record that is never likely to be equalled. Now, after five seasons as an assistant coach to Pat Lam with Bristol, John Muldoon is back in many senses where he belongs.

And all changed, changed utterly.

“It’s very different, very different from the place I left,” said Muldoon in advance of next Saturday’s clash with Leinster. “There’s a lot of new faces, different personalities, there’s a lot of change in the way Pete [Wilkins] does things.

“I had Pat here as a coach, went over to Bristol and enjoyed my time there. By the end of it, I probably knew what Pat going to say in meetings but that was because we spent so much time together.

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“I’ve been enjoying Pete and the freshness and the different take he has on things. Do I always agree? Do I put my tuppence worth in? I’m starting to do it a little bit lately. Pete will always take it on board. Sometimes I’m wrong, sometimes we see things differently, but that’s the way with all coaches.

“Certainly, it’s been a learning curve in the last couple of months. Have we got to where I’d like us to be? No. But we’re working hard to change things. It doesn’t happen overnight, but I’ve enjoyed it so far.”

As the sun filtered brightly into the media room at the Sportsground prior to their afternoon training session, Muldoon admitted that his five years as a defence and forwards coach at Bristol to being back with his former province, has been “a huge learning curve for me, in the presentations style, getting my point across and the detail in trying to do all that.

“But I suppose you’ve got to have confidence in yourself and trust in your ability to deliver that. You will have highs and you will have lows and it’s about riding the waves, because when things are going well you can’t get too cocky and likewise when things aren’t going your way you’ve got to be copper-fastening that you’re on the right road.

“In the environment that I came from and the [Premiership] league, it certainly doesn’t allow you to stay still for too long,” added Muldoon wryly.

But he felt he needed to take his leave from Connacht.

“I felt it was important to get away from the familiarity of it and that emotional bond and attachment I had to the whole place, and that was the way I wanted to do things.”

“I think these two leagues are slightly different. There is more of an element of forward play in the Premiership. It’s tighter and I think that’s probably down to relegation previously but it’s a little bit freer here in throwing the ball around and the openness of the game, But other than that, they’re very similar.”

Admittedly it’s early stages in the URC, but the competition’s statistics rate Connacht with the ninth best line-out, whereas they were the second last season, albeit they’ve only conceded two line-out penalties.

“There’s a lot of work to do still. Ultimately when I came in, I changed pretty much everything. I tried to put my own stamp on it and that takes time. We’ve made mistakes and are where we want to be? No. Can we control more of what we’re doing? Yes, we can.

“We talked about this last week and we had a couple of line-out errors a the weekend which was very frustrating and that’s been a topic of conversation this morning already with the group.

“Obviously Dewald [Senekal] had his way of doing things,” said Muldoon in relation to his predecessor, who is back in France after spending 10 years there as a player and coach with Oyonnax.

“The penalty stats reflect why I’m trying to change things. You’ve got to be very good in the air but you also can concede in the air and not be good on the floor. We’ve got to stop teams from mauling against us so there’s an element of good and improvement still to come but ninth is not where we want to be.”

However, the reduction in penalties conceded is part of an overall improvement in discipline. This season, Connacht are ranked first for penalties conceded, their average of six per game down from ten last season.

“Ultimately, defence wins you championships, doesn’t it, not giving away tries and not giving away opportunities to score If you keep teams out of your 22 you’ve a better chance of stopping teams.

“Ironically, Leinster have the most entries into the 22 so that will test us this weekend. They don’t shoot for goal a lot. They tend to go to the corner, so it’s a big battle for the forwards this week, something we’re acutely aware of.”

When Muldoon first glanced at Connacht’s fixture list, this upcoming block of five games straight after their South African safari loomed large, namely Leinster (home), Bordeaux/Begles (home), Saracens (away), Ulster (away) and Munster (home).

“It’s exciting, isn’t it? This is where you want to be. You want to challenge yourself. Leinster, the blue bandwagon, is rolling into town and why wouldn’t you want to be in a packed Sportsground on a Saturday night looking at two teams who are playing really attractive rugby, and I think that’s the key.

“When we hold onto the ball I think you saw signs of what we can do, especially in the last 20 minutes last Saturday. It won’t be for a lack of effort and there’ll be no such things as hiccups from travel or that kind of stuff.

“The lads will be on it on Saturday night. No doubt.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times