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James Crombie/INPHO Muldoon: “From day one, Pat set standards high."
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'You have to put your feet in their shoes': John Muldoon's first steps in coaching
After 17 years at the Sportsground, the Connacht legend is now defence coach under Pat Lam at Bristol.

JUST AS SEASONS change and time moves on so, too, do ambitions.

No sporting career is infinite but after 17 years and 327 games – a record unlikely to be challenged let alone surpassed – John Muldoon’s cult status will forever live on in Connacht.

Vision of his final walk out at Sportsground encapsulate the true beauty of sport.

Given his feats and the esteem he is held, Muldoon left many in the proud province somewhat shell-shocked when he upped sticks and accepted Pat Lam’s invitation to assume the defence brief at Bristol this season.

In any other circumstances, leaving the comfort of Connacht, where he arrived in 2000, would have been a difficult decision.

But his desire to stay involved in rugby, and the chance to do so at a Premiership club, made the move a no-brainer.

“I think everyone assumed I would want to stay in Galway and there would be a job there for me but it’s not as simple as that,” Muldoon reflects.

“It wouldn’t have bothered me getting involved in Connacht and coaching people I’ve played with over the years but it is probably easier to move away for a while and start off with people you don’t know.

“I’m sure a lot of people were surprised to begin with but others were very appreciative of me wanting a new experience.”

Four months into his new role at Bristol and Muldoon is soaking up every experience.

Already, it has proved a testing journey.

The 35-year-old retired on April 13; welcomed his first baby, Scott, the following Thursday; and then moved to Bristol little over a month later.

Muldoon’s wife and son settled in Bristol in August but, in between times, he travelled back to Galway regularly during summer.

“It was a fairly hectic few weeks retiring, becoming a dad for the first time and then moving away.

“Being a professional rugby player for so long, I was ready to retire and I knew my time was up. Everyone has regrets. If I knew then what I know now, I definitely would have changed some things, but that’s life. To walk away from rugby and know the time was right was an easy decision. It’s been a big motivation of mine to get involved in coaching.”

Muldoon featured three times for Ireland – earning two Test caps. But it is captaining Connacht to the Pro12 championship in 2016 he will long be celebrated for.

Now, with the clipboard, he is attempting to transfer those experiences, the highs and the lows, along with striking a balance between coach and confidant at Bristol.

“You remember when things weren’t going well how coaches treated you. You remember when things were going well how they kept your feet on the floor.

“There is a line you have to draw between player and coach but you also have to be human as well. That’s what a lot of really good coaches get right and where some people probably struggle – feeling they always have to stay this side of the line. I don’t think you need to do that. People have changed.

“Certainly me as a 21-year-old is very different to what a 19-year-old is like today. While it may be hard to get my head around how they do and feel, the reality is you have to put your feet in their shoes and see what motivates them, and what gets them up in the morning.

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“I’m far from the finished article and I have a lot to learn in the coaching-management style but it’s a work in progress.”

Walking into the defence role was not totally unfamiliar. Whenever injured or having a down training day at Connacht, Lam would get Muldoon to run drills.

In many ways, that tutelage continues at Bristol.

“In terms of looking after the defence, it’s just building on what Pat has done. He’s helped me out massively. There’s still a few things I’m learning – the subtleties around some of the backs’ defence. It’s always challenging every week when you see some of the players we come up against. The teams are bigger and better each week. I’m sure it will be a long year.”

In the age of intense video analysis – with systems, structures and strategies commonplace – defence has evolved dramatically.

Where once up-and-out or man-on were the only defensive ploys in town, multiple variations are now in vogue, with specific players often targeted or, indeed, protected.

Also with concussion in the spotlight, Muldoon says during pre-season Bristol worked heavily on entry to the tackle, ensuring defenders close the gap to the attacker and get their head in the right position.

“Wales, Wasps and a couple of others started coming hard once the rugby league influences came along. Ireland brought in the choke tackle. But the reality is rugby is still based on the fundamentals that you’ve got to try and stop a team going forward.

“If you do that you win games. If you slow down ball and be effective in your plus one, you win games. Disrupting lineouts, winning 50/50s, it’s all clichés but ultimately that’s what defence is about.

“There’s been different ways over the years to do that and it is evolving all the time. All teams are trying to be at the forefront of what the new fad is. We’re no different, and we try new things, but it comes back to being able to defend well.”

Muldoon only has to walk down the street in Bristol to appreciate how rapidly life has changed.

No more with every few steps does he encounter another familiar face keen to chat.

For now, though, he appears to be reveling in those new surroundings.

“From day one, Pat set standards high. We’ve probably come out and surprised a few by saying we want to get in the top six – I’m sure there’s a few people who probably laughed into their cups of tea. But you’ve got to be ambitious and work hard. We’re determined and driven to get there.”

Those characteristics Muldoon carried through his storied playing career and now into his budding start as a professional coach.

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