Tal­is­manic Mul­doon takes his fi­nal bow

Vet­eran departs after 327 com­pet­i­tive ap­pear­ances for the prov­ince while his 252 out­ings in the Pro14 are a tour­na­ment record

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gerry Thornley Rugby cor­re­spon­dent

So to­day John Mul­doon bids farewell to the Sports­ground and Con­nacht. After 17 years with the prov­ince, dur­ing which he led them to their great­est day in that 2016 Pro12 fi­nal win over Le­in­ster at Mur­ray­field, his sta­tus is as­sured. To­day he ex­tends his Con­nacht record to 327 com­pet­i­tive ap­pear­ances. Truly we will never see his like again.

With the pass­ing years, the bet­ter he be­came. In his 30s, he was at his most durable and de­pend­able, and played his best rugby. In the last four sea­sons, Mul­doon played 107 out of Con­nacht’s 117 matches. Of those, he started 96, com­plet­ing 80 min­utes a to­tal of 73 times.

“That’s in­cred­i­ble,” ad­mits Con­nacht as­sis­tant coach Nigel Carolan. “It’s be­come one of the most im­por­tant at­tributes for a player to have, never mind your skills or your speed; the abil­ity to be durable. The shelf life of a rugby player has dropped from an av­er­age of 12 years to an av­er­age now of eight, only in the last num­ber of years.”

By com­par­i­son, An­drew Browne, the 31-year-old, home grown, Gal­way-born lock is also re­tir­ing from Con­nacht, hav­ing been re­stricted to 56 games in the last four sea­sons.

As well as the Con­nacht record (Michael Swift is next on 269), Mul­doon’s 252 ap­pear­ances in the Guin­ness Pro14 are a tour­na­ment record, over 50 clear of the next best, Matthew Rees.

“In the last 15 years the game has be­come so much more bru­tal as well,” adds Carolan. “I can’t see his [Mul­doon’s] to­tal be­ing beaten in the mod­ern game.”

Carolan be­gan work­ing with the IRFU in 2002, the fi­nal year of the na­tional academy, which Mul­doon was a part of. He first saw Mul­doon play when Con­nacht won the Un­der-20 in­ter­provin­cial cham­pi­onship for the first time in 2002.

Smart player

“You could see then, even as a 19-year-old, he had a good head on his shoul­ders. He was never the most skil­ful, or the fastest, but he was a smart player. He rarely missed tack­les, or break­downs. He was very de­pend­able. He al­ways had a good grasp on the game as well. He was never afraid to speak his mind.”

Mul­doon’s ca­reer also gives the lie to the no­tion that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Jake Heenan, who has sol­diered along­side Mul­doon in the Con­nacht back­row for the last five years, says: “One of the most in­ter­est­ing things I’ve found about ‘Mul’ is that I would say he is a much bet­ter player now than when I first turned up.”

“His abil­ity to con­tinue to learn the game and the skills of the game, is what im­pressed me the most. He learned to throw good passes and all sorts of off­loads. I had a psy­chol­o­gist who I worked with back in New Zealand and he said the idea that ev­ery player has a prime is a myth. He said play­ers only stop get­ting bet­ter when they stop work­ing on lit­tle skills.”

The man him­self main­tains he was a puppy when he learned his han­dling skills, and that they’d largely re­mained dor­mant un­til Pat Lam came along. He was about 13 or 14 when he and his brother Ivan, older by 13 months, stood at op­po­site ends of the hall­way in their home in Por­tumna and fired a rugby ball at each other. The hall­way was only a cou­ple of me­tres wide and both walls were adorned with framed fam­ily pho­to­graphs, which de­manded ac­cu­racy.One un­cle rowed in the Mon­treal Olympics and an­other was a noted tug of war ex­po­nent, but com­ing from Por­tumna both sides of his fam­ily tree were steeped in hurl­ing.

From the age of two or three he re­mem­bers run­ning around with a hurl in his hands and he started play­ing with Gor­tanu­mera Na­tional School.

He started play­ing rugby – again in­spired by Ivan – from the age of 14 at Por­tumna Com­mu­nity School. They also joined Ne­nagh to play in the North Mun­ster League, and won an All-Ire­land ti­tle. He then broke into the Con­nacht Youths and the Ir­ish Youths. Mean­while, after the Por­tumna Mi­nors re­tained their Gal­way crown, he won an All-Ire­land Mi­nor medal with Gal­way when beat­ing Cork at Croke Park. He played a club game about two weeks later, and that was it.

Phys­i­cal­ity

“Rugby prob­a­bly suited me bet­ter and I liked the phys­i­cal­ity of it,” he once ex­plained. “I’ve al­ways been a re­al­ist and I knew I was bet­ter at rugby as well, but I just en­joyed the game more.”

Mul­doon moved to Gal­way with his brother and a cousin, while play­ing for the Ire­land Un­der-19s, and joined Gal­we­gians. He played for the Ir­ish Un­der-21s in two Un­der-21 World Cups, in South Africa in 2002, and Eng­land in 2003.

He was of­fered a Con­nacht de­vel­op­ment con­tract the fol­low­ing sea­son, which Steph Nel promptly upped to a full-time con­tract when Johnny O’Con­nor, Gavin Duffy and Colm Rigney de­camped to Eng­land. Where­upon Nel sud­denly stepped down, to be re­placed by Michael Bradley.

He made his com­pet­i­tive de­but as a re­place­ment in a home win over the Bor­der Reivers in Oc­to­ber, but play­ing for Gal­we­gians he suf­fered an an­kle lig­a­ment in­jury which side­lined him for six months.

It was a bless­ing, al­low­ing him to bulk up in the gym. “It turned me from a frail young fella into a big­ger man.”

Hav­ing turned 22, he played 24 games for Con­nacht in 2005-06, and on foot of agree­ing a new con­tract, was also of­fered the cap­taincy but turned it down, as he felt he was too young, be­fore tak­ing it on two years later.

Mul­doon be­came a main­stay for four years. There were some no­table scalps in the Chal­lenge Cup but, lack­ing squad depth, there were some bad days too. Mid­way through the 2008-09 sea­son, Mul­doon had an of­fer from Ul­ster, and in Eng­land, but Bradley and chief ex­ec­u­tive Gerry Kelly per­suaded him to think again. A Christ­mas crowd of 5,000 packed the Sports­ground for a 12-6 win over Mun­ster, their first over them since 1986, and first in Gal­way since 1979. “So I de­cided to stay! Thank­fully!” In the 2010-11 sea­son, Eric El­wood’s first, Con­nacht rose to ninth of 12 in the League, and there­after were on the up.

Mul­doon won two caps on the Amer­i­cas tour in 2009, but half an hour into the All Blacks Test in New Ply­mouth in 2010 he suf­fered a bro­ken arm.

He did him­self and his in­ter­na­tional prospects no good by al­low­ing him­self to be rushed back at Con­nacht. “The Ir­ish man­age­ment must have been look­ing at me go­ing, what’s this gob­shite do­ing? Ef­fec­tively I killed my in­ter­na­tional ca­reer in those few months. I stupidly put my­self for­ward and said ‘yeah I’ll play’.”

With a lay-off due, against Har­lequins that De­cem­ber he broke his arm again, which side­lined him for an­other three months.

Fam­ily farm

Work­ing on the fam­ily farm over the sum­mer of 2011, Mul­doon re­turned fit­ter than ever in pre-sea­son, when El­wood passed the cap­taincy to Gavin Duffy. Mul­doon was dis­ap­pointed, but not sur­prised.

Fit, in form, and ever-present in 2011-12, as in 2008-09, Mul­doon was Con­nacht’s Player of the Sea­son. This earned him one last game in an Ir­ish shirt in the non-capped match against Fiji at Thomond Park in Novem­ber 2012, when he sus­tained a knee in­jury which side­lined him for three months.

“I’m proud to have the caps but I sup­pose I didn’t re­ally ever feel like I was part of an Ire­land team. I felt more like a tackle bag for what­ever num­ber of years I was up there [in Dublin], on and off for three or four years.”

In Lam’s third sea­son, 2014-15, Mul­doon was re-in­stated as cap­tain. He had learned from the ex-Chiefs cap­tain Craig Clarke, whom Mul­doon de­scribes as the best cap­tain he ever played un­der.

“Mul was great. I don’t think my ex­pe­ri­ences with him were too dif­fer­ent from any­one else’s,” says Heenan. “He’s al­ways been one of those cap­tains who leads re­ally well, but is also re­ally good mates with the boys. He doesn’t com­pro­mise friend­ships with any­one. I’ve al­ways been able to talk with him on a se­ri­ous level and a per­sonal level, in a very re­laxed man­ner as well, and it’s very easy to fol­low some­one who knows the game that well.”

In the 2015-16 sea­son, all of Mul­doon’s at­tributes were honed to their best in Con­nacht’s march to the Pro12 ti­tle. He played in 23 of their 24 games, start­ing all but two and com­pleted 80 min­utes 20 times.

“His per­for­mances in­creased with each game,” says Heenan. “When­ever we played big games he played a big game.”

Mul­doon be­came a tal­is­manic fig­ure for the crowd as well as the team. When Mul­doon made a big hit, or carry, or latched over the ball for a turnover, it some­how seemed to have more im­pact.

Warhorse

“He led from the front,” says Carolan. “He al­ways had that big beard so he stood out. But a lot of the work he did went un­no­ticed be­cause he’s a bit of a warhorse. He was hit­ting rucks and mak­ing other guys look good by the work he did off the ball. As well as be­ing a very com­pe­tent de­fender, he was vo­cal and gave con­fi­dence to the play­ers around him.”

When you con­sider ev­ery­thing, it’s hard to think of any­one who’s had a greater Con­nacht ca­reer.

“It’ll be hard for any­one to match what John has given to Con­nacht rugby, both on the pitch and off it,” ad­mits Carolan. “He is iconic.

“He’s been an in­spi­ra­tional leader, not only as a rugby player but as a per­son from the west of Ire­land, who be­lieved in his team and where he was from, and knew that they could achieve and stuck with it.”

“There were times when it was tough. He had of­fers on the table. He could have gone. But he stuck with it, and a lot of the suc­cess, when it came, was down to peo­ple like him. Peo­ple know him for what he rep­re­sents and how he has pre­sented him­self. He was never one that looked for the glory, but the glory has come to him be­cause of how hard he has worked for it.” At Bris­tol, Mul­doon, as de­fence coach, and Heenan, as player, will be link­ing up again with Lam and Conor McPhillips, who is an as­sis­tant coach there. “He’s got a good head for it,” says Carolan. “He doesn’t get too flus­tered. He’s quite an­a­lyt­i­cal. He’s very log­i­cal. He’s able to break big pic­tures into small bits and de­cide which ones work and don’t work, and he’s a good way of speak­ing to the lads. He be­lieves in what he thinks. It’s his point of view, not some­one else’s and he’s thought about it. “He’s also ex­tremely pas­sion­ate who’ll get the play­ers to buy into his way, but I think he’ll al­low them to grow as well. He’s not one that likes to have it all about him. I think he’ll make a won­der­ful coach.” And one day, maybe, re­turn to coach the prov­ince he rep­re­sented as proudly and ef­fec­tively as any­body has ever done.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JAMES CROMBIE/INPHO

Con­nacht’s John Mul­doon: In the last four sea­sons, Mul­doon played 107 out of Con­nacht’s 117 matches. Of those, he has started 96, com­plet­ing 80 min­utes a to­tal of 73 times.

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