IF Connacht beat Glasgow Warriors on Saturday, and go on to win the Guinness Pro 12 Grand Final seven days later, then it will be hard to really begrudge the men from the west coast of Ireland – and particularly long-serving captain John Muldoon – their success.
The Cinderella province of Irish rugby has had to do it the hard way. Unloved and underfunded by the IRFU from the very beginning of the professional era, they seemed destined to live out their entire existence in the shadows, whilst their big sisters from Leinster, Munster and Ulster hogged the dance floor.
But then a fairy godmother in the peculiar guise of a 6foot 2inch former Samoan international back-rower bounced onto the scene three years ago, and persuaded his charges that they, too, could go to the ball.
Building on the solid foundations lain down by predecessor Eric Elwood, Pat Lam used his contacts in New Zealand to bolster Connacht’s firepower through the recruitment of All Black legend Mils Muliaina for one year and powerhouse centre Bundee Aki on a three year deal.
While the playing budget at Connacht is not thought to have significantly increased during Lam’s tenure, the IRFU have provided extra resources to pay-off historical debts and to improve training facilities in the province,
It took Lam a few years to get his squad to truly believe that they could be credible title challengers in the Pro12, before they really set the competition alight this season.
Everybody loves to see the underdog do well, and it is really special when they do it with a smile on their face. In the case of Connacht, they now have an endearing habit of playing an expansive brand of rugby which is a total anathema to those who spent the best part of two decades watching them scrap (heroically but uninspiringly) for survival.
Connacht had never finished in the top half of the Pro 12 table until this season, and now they have a home play-off semi-final against last year’s champs – and they are perfectly entitled to go into Saturday’s clash brimming with confidence after beating the same team at the same venue in their last outing a fortnight ago.
It is a rags to riches tale of a scale comparable to Leicester City’s achievements in the English Premiership football league this season, and Muldoon is the thread which holds the story together.
“Some of the younger players are probably sick of me talking about where we’ve come from over the last few years, but you’ve got to have a history before you can talk about what’s going to happen in the future,” says the 33-year-old.
“To be where we are now means a lot of people who went through hardship to get there. At times like these you think about the people who have played in this jersey and the coaches who got us here. I’m just grateful that I’m still part of that, having a role and being able to enjoy it every week.”
“I look at some of the players I’ve been friendly with over the years who would have given anything to be in my position right now. So I’m grateful that I’m still part of it. That’s probably a selfish way to think but it is fantastic still to be part of an organisation that has grown with sponsorship, fans, everything,” he adds.
When the industrious back-rower signed his first professional contract with his home province way back in the summer of 2003, Connacht were in desperate mess. A recent cost-cutting proposal by the IRFU which involved closing the side had come to nothing in the face of a furious public outcry, with 2,000 supporters marching on the organisation’s headquarters in Dublin – but their budget remained around half that of the other Irish provinces, and several of their more experienced players had gone off in search of a more secure working environment.
The early years were tough for Muldoon, and his relationship with head coach Michael Bradley was complicated. He managed only two starts and two appearances off the bench during his first season, and Connacht finished ninth in the Celtic League table – which was pretty poor but at least better than Scotland’s three sides. Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Borders ended up tenth, eleventh and (dead last) twelfth.
Muldoon became a regular in the side the following season, but Bradley remained unconvinced about the back-rowers ability to cut it in the professional game. Muldoon, however, insists that his faith in himself and his province never wavered.
“It was a bad time in Connacht’s history but a good time for me. I know that I wasn’t good enough to be in the environment that early, but because one of two players left the opportunity arose and I got my contract. And through all those bad days I always thought we could get here. I knew there was a lot of success in Ireland and I always thought it could filter through to Connacht at some stage,” he recalls.
“But the older you get you start to think it’s not going to happen for you and I thought I might be like Mick Galwey or some of those lads at Munster and miss out on it. In the last few years seeing the young lads come through I was thinking: Jeez, I hope I am part of it when it does click.”
“The big thing for us is we’ve got to maintain it for the coming years. A bit like Leicester City, there is no point us having a one-off season then being back down where we were. We’ve got to maintain this and that’s a big focus in pre-season and moving forward. We have a lot of young players who are hungry for success and international honours, so we should be in a good place for a few years. If I can hang on their coattails for a bit longer I’ll be happy.”
He continues: “We’ve won nothing yet, that’s the big thing. It’s great to be in a semi-final and have a chance to push for a final – but success is lifting trophies and never in our history have we done that.
“All the other three semi-finalists have been there and won it before, and we’re facing Glasgow, the defending champions with all the quality they have. But you allow yourselves to dream. When you’re a kid playing in your back yard, no matter what sport, you dream of lifting trophies and I’ve probably done it a thousand times. It would be nice to do it for real.”
Images: Craig Watson [www.craigwatson.co.uk]