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'If we do the same things we did last year, we won't be in the top six'

Pat Lam’s Connacht know they will have to bring new attacking ideas into the mix.

JOHN MULDOON SAYS he had a “funny moment” with new signing Cian Kelleher during last week’s pre-season friendly against Montpellier.

The Connacht pair were in the backfield when the French side kicked deep. Muldoon fielded the ball and threw a pass infield to the former Leinster fullback, following it up with an immediate shout to “run.”

Bundee Aki, John Muldoon and Tiernan O'Halloran The new Connacht kit, available from official retail partner Elverys Intersport. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Kelleher took off and made 20 metres with ball in hand, launching Connacht back onto the front foot and into their attacking flow.

“But a couple of minutes later, Cian came back and said, ‘I probably should have kicked that,’” explains Muldoon.

“I looked at him and said, ‘We don’t kick here, Cian!’ and he went off with a bit of a wry smile on his face. He’s picking up things very quickly and he’s getting used to the systems.”

Muldoon recounts the tale with a smile of his own, more of the cheeky variety, but his recollection is instructive. Connacht earned their first-ever piece of silverware last season playing an ambitious and expansive style of attacking rugby.

Head coach Pat Lam has underlined the need for the western province to have the ability to play in a range of styles, but there is no doubt that they will back their attacking prowess as they look to retain the Pro12 and secure a Champions Cup quarter-final.

Muldoon and co. have spent pre-season ensuring that the collective mindset is that last season’s success is only a launchpad for further glory.

“I think when you are champions there is that risk, when you have won something and you haven’t won for a long time, there is that risk that maybe you are coming back and you are thinking ‘I’ve partied a little bit too hard,’” says Muldoon.

“‘Is the will there or is the fire there to come back and train as hard and to want to succeed again?’ I think it’s a new position for Connacht Rugby.”

Bristling with infectious enthusiasm, energy and confidence, Muldoon paints a picture of a Connacht camp that will not be affected by any malaise or lack of hunger now that their ‘underdog’ status is gone.

Pat Lam Pat Lam will attempt to lead Connacht to a second Pro12 title. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The 33-year-old, who captains the province again this season, has been encouraged by how Connacht’s players returned from the off-season.

Using himself as an example of someone who always has to look over his shoulder in “fear” – at the likes of Sean O’Brien, James Connolly, Eoin McKeon and Rory Moloney in the back row – Muldoon says the ever-increasing competition in Connacht’s own squad is motivation enough.

“I think the big thing is that when you look at people’s fitness levels and the scores and the shape that everyone came back in, not too many people over-indulged over the summer,” says the Portumna man.

“It makes you get out on your holidays and run, do whatever you can. I’d love to say that I had a lovely two weeks on holidays and I didn’t do anything, but that’s not true. I took a week off and started back into training, did a bit every morning on holidays. I’m sure a lot of lads were in the same boat.

“You’ve got to keep working hard because one or two bad performances and you’ll get turfed out.”

Connacht are very much looking forward, though Muldoon says he will always cherish the memories of last season’s historic feats.

The reception Lam and his players received outside Murrayfield before the final was his favourite moment. The team bus pulled up at the stadium and was greeted by hundreds of Connacht fans crowded around the entrance and up the stairwells of the stands.

The Fields of Athenry bellowed out. Lam had to compose his emotional players in the changing room. Unforgettable.

“That will always stay with me,” says Muldoon, “it’s even giving me goosebumps now thinking of it again. That’s definitely the biggest and best feeling that I have ever had in a jersey or being a part of anything before.”

Fans wait for the teams to arrive Connacht fans at Murrayfield last season. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

He recalls sitting at the back of the Connacht bus at home in Galway the following day, with Ronan Loughney, Tiernan O’Halloran, Andrew Browne, Aly Muldowney, Finlay Bealham and Tom McCartney around him; “a couple of Galway lads mixed in with a few foreigners.”

En route to the Sportsground to show off the trophy, the players suddenly wondered if anyone would be there. Thousands of the Connacht fans who had been at the final were still in transit back from Edinburgh.

“There was a slight bit of trepidation,” says Muldoon, “but to see the crowd walking up College Road behind the bus was phenomenal.

“You think, ‘Jesus, if they are all over there [in Edinburgh], who the hell are these people and where have they come out of?’”

Muldoon accepts that there will be increased expectations on Connacht this season, particularly from the newer supporters, who have not lived through the province’s darker days.

He laughs and points out that the pressure to remain at the top of the Pro12 is far more welcome than the pressure involved in being close to the bottom of the league.

If Connacht can build on the impressive attacking skills they demonstrated last season, combined with their polished shape and a defence that grew as the campaign reached its conclusion, they are likely to pick up even more new fans.

Muldoon, however, stresses that what worked for Lam’s side last season will not suffice in 2016/17.

“If we do the same things we did last year, we won’t win [the Pro12] or we won’t be in the top six,” says the Connacht captain. “Because every team is going to come out and analyse us, analyse what we’ve done.

Connacht’s Bundee Aki lifts the trophy Connacht are no longer underdogs. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Everyone’s going to look at us. Glasgow, we beat them twice at the end of last season, they’re going to come out [in the first game of the season] and say, ‘Well, this is how they beat us, let’s stop that.’

“If we think that last year’s levels are going to be good enough this year, we’re fooling ourselves. We’ve put a massive emphasis on our skills to try and get better.

“We’ve got to improve and get better. Each and every time we came off games last year, we didn’t feel that we had played as well as we could. We always felt that there was more in us and we always felt that if we did this a little better, or that, we always made mistakes.

“There was stuff that was manifesting itself and stuff that was becoming apparent to us last year as the season went on. ‘Oh, we can do this’ or ‘If we get our skills better, we can try this.’

“We can get better and better, and some of that is starting to come out now. We believe we have the capability of getting better, but time will tell.”

John Muldoon launched the 2016/17 Connacht Rugby home jersey in conjunction with title sponsor and official retail partner Elverys Intersport. For exclusive content and to see how Elverys Intersport welcome home Connacht Rugby, visit www.elverys.ie or follow @Elverys on Twitter and Facebook at facebook.com/ElverysSports.

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Murray Kinsella

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