By Linley MacKenzie
(initially published in the Galway Advertiser)
Long-serving Connacht forward John Muldoon will make his 300th appearance on Saturday evening against Leinster at the Sportsground.
At 34 years of age and in his 14th season, having made his debut off the bench against the Borders in 2003, Muldoon’s leadership and longevity have ensured his place in the record books.
“It’s remarkable what he has done,” says Connacht coach Pat Lam. “I don’t think too many people will be able to do this again. To play in the position he does is not easy physically, and it’s a real credit to him.”
The only player to have reached this milestone in the Pro 12, Muldoon has been an ever-present figure for Connacht, having joined Michael Swift in the 200 club in 2013. But Muldoon says Saturday’s derby with Leinster is just another game for himself and Connacht as they try to build on last weekend’s 19-22 win over Edinburgh, which ensured a Champions Cup play-off this season.
“It’s a derby, Leinster coming to town, and I’ve played in a good few before and I will treat it the same as any other derby game at home. We have a lot to do to step up and try to beat them.
“It’s an opportunity for lads and the end-of-season tour, and the fact that we have a lot of players who would have grown up playing with and against their players adds a little spice to it. We all know there is rivalry, and it just adds that extra bit to it, you can see that in the scramble for tickets, it’s all sold out and even the fans know it is a big one.
“We know with a couple of results we could have been higher up and we are disappointed with the outcome of a couple of games, but there is still a lot ot play for. We want to finish as high up as we can.”
Yet again Connacht have been hit by injuries to key personnel. Hooker Tom McCartney and wing Stacey Ili are both undergoing ankle surgery this week. It will see them sidelined for the remainder of the season, as is prop Ronan Loughney following surgery on his arm. Fellow prop JP Cooney is also doubtful with a minor shoulder injury, while both flanker James Connolly and Darragh Leader have returned to training.
The eastern province arrive in superb form, and Lam says it does not matter which team Leo Cullen selects, it will be full of experience and quality.
“Leinster have pretty much two international teams. All the guys coming through are the best of the best of the schools and academy system, but they are finally getting opportunities which is great for Irish rugby
“In my time here, we’ve always played them full strength or filled with guys who have experience – one international replaces another international. They are in a good place as a squad, they’ve got Champions Cup, they are going well and the squad is humming.”
Last season is “history”
Although Connacht are in a different place than they were last year, Lam says its “all history”.
“We’ve been here before and played them in this situation before – to me it’s all history. It’s all about the game itself and what you have in front of you and how you prepare so it’s no different to last year whether it was the final, here or the RDS. Everything is about how well we prepare this week, that is all that counts.
“We are playing the No 1 team so no doubt we have to play better, but we know we can be better. What I like about our game and it still gives me belief is that we are creating opportunities, it’s whether we are able to take them.”
Connacht, having only reached last year’s form in sporadic patches, will certainly have up their level of intensity in defence and at at the breakdown, and the forwards will be charged with putting their side on the front foot to provide quick ball and space for their backs. They will not lack motivation. A sell-out at the Sportsground should certainly add to the atmosphere, and a win would be the perfect form of appreciation for Muldoon’s continuing leadership after 14 seasons.