“The fathach is gone now, he has gone back to his castle but the memories live on.” – Connacht tribute to John Muldoon in 2018
When elders of the hurling tribe call you a mythical giant, your achievements are already beyond most mortals. To be branded a fathach by Joe Connolly ("People of Galway, we lavvvv you") makes Sunday's return to coach in front of an eerily silent Clan terrace all the more significant.
John Muldoon is coming home, just for a short while.
“Part of me is happy that the crowd will not be there. Another part of me would love to see a full Sportsground, but what would I do looking down at my Mum and sister in Connacht scarves shouting for Connacht?
“It’s like a derby game, isn’t it?”
The Bristol Bears – sans Semi Radradra, who was controversially injured playing for Fiji – are expected to avenge a crushing defeat to Clermont Auvergne. Muldoon's multicultural pack is expected to profit from the draining heroics of his Connacht brethren in Paris last Sunday.
Expectations can often go awry when that western wind blows in.
Whatever the result, the Pat Lam circus rolls back into Galway. It is a pitstop that will ruin one team’s European campaign before they can face any more French giants.
"It will be very, very strange going back," Muldoon admitted. "Last time I stood in the Sportsground was to clean out my locker the day after my last game [a 47-10 thumping of Leinster capped off by his cheeky conversion].
“Moving to Bristol three weeks later meant I didn’t have time to digest it. It was just, on to the next thing. I would have liked to get back to watch them but that is not how it materialised with my new job.”
"Anyone who has ever driven through Portumna will know it as a handsome town with an old-money boulevard and a wonderful location on the Shannon, and as a town that seems very far removed from Galway city. It has produced two of Galway's most recognisable and expressive contemporary sports stars in Joe Canning and Connacht's dauntless number eight – they may as well just retire the number after this – and captain, John Muldoon." – Keith Duggan, May 2016
This Sunday is an important footnote in the post-playing career of the man they call “Mul”. Portumna’s second most-famous son, from their second most-famous clan, slips into the sleeping west. No Liam MacCarthy this year despite four mesmerising sideline cuts by his neighbour against Limerick. No minor title either, like Muldoon’s in 2000, because it cannot be completed until January at the earliest.
Hurling blood courses through Muldoon’s veins. The mystery of why the IRFU have been unable to unearth upgraded versions of him from that handsome town deep in GAA country remains unsolved.
The "Gah-bred" athletes who have achieved global recognition can be listed on one hand. Muldoon is the obvious one, but a wonder exists as to why careers similar to Shane Horgan, Seán O'Brien, Tadhg Furlong and Alan Quinlan have not been replicated by scouring the pitches of south Galway, Meath and the sunny southeast, to offset an ever-increasing reliance on the private rugby schools.
Muldoon, in time, could be the perfect response from Irish rugby to the recruitment drive Tadhg Kennelly has spearheaded for Aussie Rules. Ironically, the Australian duo overseeing the game on this island have barely fished in this plentiful talent stream.
“Limerick were phenomenal,” Muldoon ends a discussion about this year’s hurling championship. “Just the intensity they have – you think there is no way they can keep it up for 70 minutes, but they do. If the hunger stays in them for a few years it is hard to see anyone else beating them.”
We mention Shane Dowling, on Off The Ball, explaining how Limerick's academy system wrestled back control of the hearts and minds in the Treaty county when Munster failed to fully capitalise on the success of 2006 and 2008.
“I think it is down to families and to breeding. A lot of GAA people only want to pull on their county colours. It is down to where they come from.”
Yet Muldoon’s Connacht tapped into this very mindset with the monumental success of 2016.
“I do agree with you but the days are gone of underage stars being able to play minor football and hurling and still make it in rugby at 19. I had never touched a weight until after my minor year with Galway. My peers in the private schools had.
"We have three kids with us in Bristol just out of school and they are massive. We did a contact session today and when they carry into Nathan Hughes they are not getting rag-dolled.
“If you are choosing between the Dublin minors or the Leinster academy you are on the border of being too late.”
True, the divvying up of modern Irish athletes happens at under-14. Surely, as the Ireland women's squad are showing, there is more than enough talent to be spread around?
“One hundred per cent. I remember a conversation we had with Pat after winning the Pro12. We agreed that we would not see the fruits of this for five, six, even 10 years. It was the 14 and younger kids who were influenced the most by the success.
The numbers are growing in Connacht. There are new clubs sprouting up all the time. It takes time. Like, my own club, Portumna, are trying to get facilities up and running
“I think 12 of the Connacht squad that played Racing came through the academy. So that backs that up. The impressionable 14-year-olds in 2016 are only 18 now.
“That’s why Leinster are so good. Each year one or two players come through. Think back, when did they start winning trophies? Eleven years ago. They have had a constant supply of kids coming through since. They are only going to get stronger and stronger.”
Rugby faces a similar challenge to the GAA: how to keep up with the population explosion and coaching advantages in Dublin/Leinster.
“The numbers are growing in Connacht. There are new clubs sprouting up all the time. It takes time. Like, my own club, Portumna, are trying to get facilities up and running. It is a long game.”
It should be the only game now Irish rugby cannot recruit another Bundee Aki to raise all the boats around him.
“We are seeing a shift in player attitudes,” Muldoon countered. “Look through the make-up of the Connacht squad. There are players from Leinster and Munster that Connacht would not have got in the past. I saw Alex Wootton’s comments about refusing to stay at Munster and go stale. That used to be the downside of professionalism in Ireland – players would be happy to sit and wait for the internationals to go into camp before getting any game time.”
The Irish bears
Connacht, in the post-Muldoon era, are courageously keeping their head above the flowing tide. But they are expected to be washed away by Bristol and the heavy Irish influence, from chief executive Mark Tainton to Rory Murray, their head of medical services and a former Derry footballer.
Lam took a lot of bodies across the water. His reason for leaving, while irresistibly financial, was also influenced by Anthony Foley's passing.
The Aucklander sidled up to Muldoon to see if their historic coach and captain partnership could morph into something just as potent in England. But the ageing blindside craved one last winter holding his finger to the swirling Sportsground gale. One last winter in the armour of Connacht.
“It might have been a silly decision not to leave with him, but I said no because I wanted to make sure I was finished as a player. Maybe it was a bit naive as my end game was always to get into coaching.
“Pat knew I was coaching in Galwegians and he came to some of the games. In that last season he came to see a Connacht game in Cardiff. He asked if I was playing on next season. ‘No, I am done.’ He said, have you told Connacht yet? ‘No, not yet, but any job going?’ He said, laughing, I offered you one last year. ‘Yeah, I know, is there one going this year?’ Tell Connacht you are retiring first, he said.
“I rang him just before that Christmas. We had a chat about life after rugby. In January he told me: ‘There is no job here but, look, I’ll give you a ring next Friday.’”
Timing is everything. Bristol forwards coach Mark Bakewell was snapped up by the Leicester Tigers and so began Muldoon's apprenticeship at the club funded by billionaire Stephen Lansdown.
Having a player like Semi Radradra is class but if you got no culture, no bigger force driving it, all you have is a group of individuals
“Pat doesn’t let his coaches pigeonhole themselves – it is all-inclusive.”
Lam spoke this week about building the same culture that worked a minor miracle with Connacht. “It was not about having the most money but using the money wisely,” he said of those four years living the wild Atlantic way.
Now, at Bristol, it is about the money – Forbes values the 68-year-old Lansdown's worth at $2.3 billion – and using it wisely. Ian Madigan was cut loose to pair Radradra with Charles Piutau and John Afoa, two All Blacks that Ulster could not afford to keep.
“Having a player like Semi Radradra is class but if you got no culture, no bigger force driving it, all you have is a group of individuals,” Muldoon explained.
"Whenever I catch Bryan Byrne and Peter McCabe sitting beside each other I would slag them off : 'Jesus, can you not mix with the English lads?'
"There is an Irish feel to the place but as I stand here talking I can see the Severn Bridge. We had two playing for Wales in the autumn series, three for England, Semi for Fiji, quite a few Kiwis and islanders, and the Irish lads. I think we have a good mix, very similar to what Pat created in Galway.
“We have a phenomenal new facility and everyone is excited about what Stephen Lansdown is building. We have people from many different cultures but we all want to give something back to his family for backing us.”
Bristol: The Irish connection
CEO: Mark Tainton – Ireland kicking coach (2003-13)
Director of Rugby: Pat Lam – Connacht coach (2013-17)
Conor McPhilips: attack coach – Connacht (2003-17)
John Muldoon: forwards coach – Connacht (2003-18)
Rory Murray: head of medical services
Kevin Geary: head of athletic performance
Niyi Adeolokun: winger – Connacht (2014-20)
Bryan Byrne: hooker –Leinster (2014-20)
Peter McCabe: prop – Munster, Connacht (2016-20)
Jake Heenan: flanker – Connacht (2013-18)
Joe Joyce: lock –Ireland U-20 (2014)
Piers O'Connor: centre – Ireland U-19 (2013)
Callum Sheedy: outhalf – Ireland U-19 (2014)