'Connacht as champions, the weeks that followed were just unbelievable'

Second row Aly Muldowney will retire from professional rugby this summer.

EVERY CONNACHT FAN has their own favourite player from the unforgettable 2015/16 season that ended with the province claiming a Pro12 title that had started out as extremely unlikely but ended up seeming inevitable.

Aly Muldowney is certainly a name that comes to the fore when discussing Connacht’s most important individuals in that remarkable success under Pat Lam.

Having been with Bristol for the past two seasons, 36-year-old second row Muldowney is now set for retirement from professional rugby this summer.

ultan-dillane-and-aly-muldowney-celebrate Muldowney [right] with Ultan Dillane after Connacht won the Pro12 in 2016. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

He can reflect on his time with Connacht as perhaps the peak of his career, that Pro12 success coming in last of his three seasons in Galway.

A strong lineout operator, Muldowney excelled within Lam’s 2-4-2 attack shape, in which he was the key ball-playing forward in midfield, making fluid passes out the back, tipping-on short passes to his fellow forwards, or carrying himself.

It appeared that Muldowney, formerly a basketball player, was tailor-made for the role but he explains that he had to adapt to it over the course of the three seasons it took for Lam’s system to truly bed in.

“For years, especially with Exeter before I moved to Connacht, I was predominantly used just as a ball-carrier off nine to try and create quick ball,” says Muldowney.

“So I had to change from not even looking to pass at all, to passing and making decisions. It took some adjusting but it got to the stage where I was more used to passing than carrying and got that a nice balance.”

The lock believes Connacht’s continuity in personnel both in training and matches during that Pro12-winning season was vital to the fluidity of their performances, allowing players to build up familiarity with those around them. The results were often stunning, including in a final where Connacht ripped Leinster apart at times.

The western province’s fans were dismayed to lose the then 32-year-old Muldowney to French club Grenoble immediately after securing the trophy. 

But Muldowney explains that the decision had been made long before Connacht lifted their trophy.

“I miss Galway a lot,” says Muldowney. “I never wanted to leave Galway, they just didn’t offer me another contract. They didn’t want me there.

“I was speaking to my agent in January [of 2016] and he was telling me Connacht hadn’t made an offer. I heard afterwards that Pat wanted me to stay but one of the coaches – I’m not going to start mudslinging but he’s still there – he was saying that he didn’t need me there. They thought they would do without, and that was that.

aly-muldowney-and-kieran-marmion-celebrate Muldowney spent three seasons with Connacht. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“I found out in January time, when I told my agent to ring them up because no one had spoken to me. I just needed to know because I needed to look elsewhere if not. When you get told ‘we’re not too sure yet,’ you read between the lines.

“When they’re not too sure by January after two-and-a-half years of being there, they obviously don’t want you. We started looking elsewhere.”

Connacht’s decision likely revolved around Muldowney’s age, his salary, and the province’s succession planning in the second row, but he found it hard to take. 

With Muldowney’s agent putting his name out in the market, Grenoble boss Bernard Jackman got in touch, while Muldowney says a couple of Premiership clubs reached out too. He travelled to France to check out the Grenoble set-up and says he agreed a deal there without any movement from Connacht.

It was initially tough for Muldowney to focus back in on his final few months with the Irish province but he explains that the squad’s sheer desire to do something special meant he quickly got back on track.

“It was frustrating and really tough for the family. They’re settled now but they were absolutely heartbroken to be leaving, so that upset me.

“But we had a really good culture in the team, Pat kept on picking me when he didn’t have to. He could have said, ‘Ah, we can show we don’t need him’ by not picking me. But we genuinely wanted to win, we were saying that we wanted that Pro12, even if we didn’t say it in public.

“I had two choices – sit down and sulk or just do my best to stay in the team and be part of it.”

There was dejection to be leaving Connacht in 2016 but Muldowney says he very much enjoyed his first season with Grenoble, despite the club being relegated from the Top 14. The second year down in Pro D2 wasn’t quite the same.

“The first season was more organised and better run, with Bernard and Mike Prendergast and Aaron Dundon in charge,” says Muldowney before explaining that the new coaching team the following season “weren’t the best.”

Muldowney was considering retiring at the end of his second season in Grenoble but got a call from Lam, who had moved to Bristol, and gladly shifted back to the UK to link up with his old boss.

aly-muldowney-and-john-muldoon-celebrate Muldowney with John Muldoon, who has been his coach in Bristol. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Attack coach Conor McPhillips and defence specialist John Muldoon are also part of the coaching team in Bristol and Muldowney says it’s been “a bit weird” having former team-mate Muldoon as his coach, “especially when he actually praises things!” Ex-Connacht flanker Jake Heenan is part of the playing squad.

Muldowney made 10 starts for Bristol in the 2017/18 season but a neck injury ultimately hindered his ability to make an impact, while he only featured in the Premiership Cup a handful of times this season due to injury issues, most recently concussion problems.

“The concussion has led to damage in my left eye,” explains Muldowney. “I have exercises to do and it should be fine in a few weeks or months, it’s nothing permanent.

“It’s basically the same as a child with a lazy eye. Some of the muscles have just switched off from the concussion so I’ve got the same exercises they give to children with lazy eyes. It’s just about switching those muscles back on and I’ve seen this conversion/balance specialist.

“I had kept getting headaches but in just a few minutes, she nailed the problem straight away and it’s getting better now.”

Even before the concussion issues, Muldowney had finalised his decision to retire this summer.

He will turn 37 in August and is content with what he has done in the game, particularly having only played his first top-tier professional game for Glasgow at the age of 27.

The 6ft 5ins Stafford native had played rugby in his school days but became more involved in basketball in his late teen years, playing in the English National League with Stoke Steelers.

The travel demands with basketball were hectic, however, and regularly cost him a day’s pay in his job at McDonald’s at the time, so he returned to rugby with Stafford RFC after some friends asked him to make up the numbers one weekend.

He enjoyed the social side of rugby and had ability, making the step up to National League One with Stourbridge and then the English Championship with Moseley before Glasgow brought him to Scotland for the 2010/11 season, in which he played 24 times including Heineken Cup appearances against Toulouse and Wasps.

aly-muldowney-with-his-son-arlan-celebrates-at-the-end-of-the-match Muldowney with his son, Arlan. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

A move to Exeter followed before Connacht approach him in 2013 with a very strong offer that was “too good to refuse,” according to Muldowney.

His wife, Sammi, and three kids “absolutely loved Galway” during the three years they had there, while the moves to France and then Bristol were fun too.

But the while family is looking forward to the stability that retirement from pro rugby will bring.

“It’s time to stay put now,” explains Muldowney, adding that a return to the UK Midlands is on the cards.

He is close to finalising a new job with a children’s charity, having previously worked as a fundraising manager in that sector before his rugby career took off. While with Connacht, Muldowney sat on the board of Ability West, gaining crucial experience in a field he knew he wanted to move back into post-rugby.

He hopes his new line of work will begin on 1 July, the day after his Bristol contract expires, and is already able to reflect on the reality of a professional rugby career.

“Leaving Connacht as champions, the weeks that followed were just unbelievable and one of the best experiences of my life,” says Muldowney.

“Rugby is tough at times, a lot of highs and low. When you’re playing well and playing every week, it’s completely different to when you’re not. There are two sides to the coin.

“It can be an emotional drain if you’re not playing or you’re worried about contracts. There’s not a huge amount of security. Some people get huge money but, especially in England, there are loads of players who wouldn’t be on much money.

“Now they’re asking everyone to take a 25% pay cut. You see good young English on a pittance and so much money going towards imported players, the balance probably isn’t right.

“I was 27 before I played my first professional game, so it’s a very different route to go.

“Looking back, you can say you should have done things this way or that, but I’m really happy with how things have gone. I’m ready to retire now, it’s all good.”

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