John Muldoon unafraid of change in Connacht
The province’s joint captain is enjoying life under new coach Pat Lam
John Muldoon in action against Cardiff last week, a game in which he won his 200th Connacht cap. Photograph: Darren Griffiths/Inpho
Connacht’s Got Talent! Not just on the pitch but, it transpires, Pat Lam is also searching to develop hitherto hidden talent off the pitch as well. As part of their pre-season camp in Lacaune, a tiny village in the Midi-Pyrénées, the squad and management were divided into four teams for the opening contest, with the winners performing synchronised swimming in the hotel pool.
Another squad social event, back in Galway, was a themed ’70s night, in which the entire squad and management, divided into four teams, had to perform an act.
John Muldoon, for one, never envisaged the day he might have to perform a song and dance routine, much less synchronised swimming.
“To say I’ve been taken out of my comfort zone a lot over the last two or three months would be a massive understatement,” says Muldoon. “I’ve certainly done things that I never thought I would do, and I’ve done more of them in the last three months than in the previous 11 or 12 years.”
There are also weekly fitness or training games, and Muldoon is proud to say he’s been part of both winning teams in the “Connacht’s Got Talent!” and the ’70s party, alongside the likes of Gavin Duffy, Paul O’Donohoe and Miah Nikora. But he admits the RTÉ judges can also relax, and adds: “There’s a video going round of the synchronised swimming but I hope to God it never comes out.”
No two coaches are the same, but Muldoon says Eric Elwood and Lam are very different. Not being from Galway, Lam is keen to know his players better. “Pat likes to enjoy the squad and make sure the squad are enjoying themselves. He hides his emotions more, and that makes him trickier to read and know where you stand. With Eric you knew, because he’d tell you straight out,” says Muldoon with a knowing chuckle.
Shyness clearly isn’t tolerated. On Lam’s very first day in the job, he stood up in front of his new charges and gave a power-point presentation – on himself and his family.
Such candid self-revelations will be obligatory for everyone over the course of the season. It is also breaking down barriers.
“It’s funny, you think you know some of your team-mates, but they give anything from a three- to 10-minute power-point presentation, and you came away learning two or three new things about them,” says Muldoon. “But, honestly, it’s been very good.”
These are interesting, and changing times, out west. Not only has Lam taken over, David Ellis is arriving next week as kicking/skills coach to replace the departed Billy Millard, and with Mike Forshaw gone as defence coach, the Academy coaches, Jimmy Duffy, Nigel Carolan and Cory Browne, along with the Academy players, have been integrated more. They are also, of course, without a chief executive since the departure of Tom Sears.
Muldoon himself is in a good place. Two seasons ago, he was Connacht’s player of the season after starting all but two games, coming on as a replacement in them. Last season though, an injury against Zebre in their second Pro12 game ruled him out for four weeks, before knee ligament damage in the Irish Wolfhounds win over Fiji last November sidelined him until mid-February.
This forced him to watch four Heineken Cup games and the Christmas derbies, including the home wins against Biarritz and Leinster, and he never really regained his form or his place. The lads ahead of me were doing better; Eoin McKeon, Mick Kearney and Andrew Browne.
“I found it hard to get back in and then when I did, I didn’t play that well. Eric wanted to finish on a high and I knew Eric for a long time and I wanted to give him a good send-off, but I kinda felt I didn’t help him on his way off either. That’s more a personal thing but I just felt I let him down a little.”
Sometimes, as he puts it, “the more you try, the less rewards you get. The harder you try the more mistakes you make and the more frustrated you get with yourself.”
In any case, refreshed by a summer off and a good pre-season, he hasn’t missed training since June 10th, and being in good shape physically has restored his confidence.
Last week, away to Cardiff, Muldoon began only the second player to reach 200 caps for the province when emulating Michael Swift. Alas, it was not marked in the manner he’d have desired, given the 21-10 defeat.
“It’s a nice milestone, but probably more something I’ll look back on in the future,” he says. “Our discipline probably cost us the game, along with some errors. I don’t like to give out about referees but he (Claudio Blessano) didn’t control the game that well.
“The game struggled to flow and with only four or five lineouts we didn’t have much of a platform. It felt that every time he blew the whistle it was against us and it was a very frustrating game to play in.”
In advance of the season’s first Irish derby, Muldoon is surprised to hear of Connacht’s poor record of one win in their last 14 meetings with Ulster.
“We don’t do well up in Ravenhill. They seem to put us under a lot of pressure in the pack and on one or two occasions they’ve done a bit of a job on us up front, and that’s something that we as a forward unit will have to get on top of this weekend.”
That Ulster have also lost their opening two games probably makes them more dangerous, and Muldoon concedes they could have won both.
Being one of three players sharing the captaincy this season, along with Swift and Duffy, ought to allow him to temper a natural inclination to worry about others and concentrate more on his own performance, thereby bringing his full package of tackling and carrying, as well as a lineout option.
As for the team?
“Pat wants us to back ourselves and he wants lads to have a go and to see what they can achieve, and not be afraid to do things. I do think we have a better squad than we’ve had in another years, and Eric takes a chunk of the credit for that along with Nigel in the academy, but we also need to tighten up a few small things and bring that quality through.”
Last for three years running from 2008, Connacht have had successive eighth place finishes. “We haven’t sat down and set goals but we know what we want to achieve,” says Muldoon, “and that’s to be the best ever Connacht team.
“We’ve a bit of work to do ahead of us and it certainly won’t be easy, but I do think we have the players and the squad to do it.”