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Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 22 October, 2019

Inis Mór man Mullen returns to Ireland as a key part of the USA team

The 27-year-old tighthead prop moved to the States eight years ago.

WHEN ARAN ISLANDS man Paul Mullen steps out as part of the USA team that takes on Ireland today, it won’t be the first time he’s played in the Aviva Stadium.

In fact, the tighthead prop was there at the start, playing in the first game at the ground in 2010, when he was in a combined Munster/Connacht side that lost to a Leinster/Ulster outfit.

Paul Mullen USA prop Paul Mullen faces his native Ireland today. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

The clash involved many of the most promising young players in the county at the time, with Mullen having come through the Munster U18, U19 and U20 squads to feature alongside the likes of Johnny Holland and Tadhg Leader that day in 2010.

Among the victorious Leinster/Ulster side was a promising lock by the name of Iain Henderson, who will play against Mullen today as Ireland lock horns with the US Eagles.

There will be more familiar faces for Mullen in his former Ireland U19 team-mates Andrew Conway and Jordi Murphy, as well as Niall Scannell, who he played with in Munster’s underage system. 

Mullen’s path towards this Test match has been unusual and, remarkably, this week has been his very first time to return to Ireland since he left for the States in November of 2010.

Eight years away have flown by for the 27-year-old, who is set to make his seventh appearance for the US in Dublin, with his family and friends having travelled from the Aran Islands to watch him play in the flesh.

“It does feel weird,” says Mullen of returning to the Aviva for the first time since that 2010 day. “A lot has happened since and a lot has changed.”

Rugby didn’t feature at all in Mullen’s happy early years growing up on Inis Mór, which anyone who has visited will surely tell you is a slice of heaven.

With today’s clash with Ireland representing the end of the Eagles’ season, Mullen is looking forward to getting home for the first time in eight years, taking the ferry across and getting acquainted with his native land again.

John Randles, Niall Scannell and Paul Mullen Mullen alongside Niall Scannell for the Munster U20s. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I think it’s a fantastic place to grow up,” says Mullen of Inis Mór. “You have so much freedom out there. As long as you’re home before dark, you’re grand.

“You’re fishing or swimming or sailing, it’s just a fantastic place to grow up.”

Mullen’s mother runs the Spar on the island and his father has a bike shop, meaning he and his siblings all cycled in their youth. Indeed, his younger brother, Eoin, is now a professional cyclist.

“He was better at it and liked it a lot more than me,” says Paul. “I called it quits and he kept on going!”

Paul first played rugby when he moved onto the mainland to attend boarding school at Glenstal Abbey, an experience that was utterly jarring for a 12-year-old whose life had been spent in Kilronan on Inis Mór.

“When I first went to Glenstal, it was my first realisation, ‘Jeez, you actually do miss the sea.’ You’re surrounded by it and next thing, all of a sudden, you’re looking out the window and watching grass grow. To me, it was a huge change.”

One of his realisations was that he needed to strive towards having a job related to the sea in some way, explaining why he ended up studying Marine Engineering.

Mullen quickly fell in love with rugby and though his parents insisted on him moving to King’s Hospital in Palmerstown, Dublin as the Leaving Cert loomed, rugby remained a core part of his life and he continued to represent Munster.

Paul Mullen Mullen at USA training this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Having played for Munster U20s, Mullen then opted for a move to the States for university, enrolling in the Marine Engineering degree at Texas A&M University.

There is a link to the States in his Boston-born grandfather, meaning Mullen represented the USA U20s at the 2011 Junior World Trophy in Georgia, but thereafter the prop “focused on school, got the head down and got my degree.”

He continued to play with Houston Athletic and then Galveston as he studied, essentially playing Division 3 rugby.

“It was quite different because those lads would be there very much for the social aspect of rugby. I enjoyed it, no doubt about it, but I always wanted to be playing a higher level and really wanted to play for America.

“All my uncles would be fishermen so they fished in America for a while. We have a lot of family there, cousins, and that.”

The opportunity to step up came when former Ireland international prop Justin Fitzpatrick, head coach of the Houston SabreCats in Major League Rugby, called Mullen and asked if he was keen on joining the club. 

Having finished his thesis, the Aran Islander “jumped at the chance.”

Mullen made an instant impression with the SabreCats and was called up by the US for this year’s June Tests, debuting against Russia and then starting again a week later as the Eagles pulled off a shock win against Scotland.

MLR 2018: Houston SaberCats vs Capital Rugby Union Mullen played Major League Rugby for the Houston SabreCats this year. Source: Maria Lysaker

Following those Tests, USA head coach Gary Gold was keen for Mullen to get further top-level experience and the prop headed to Premiership side Newcastle before a short loan spell at Championship outfit Doncaster.

Mullen isn’t quite sure where he will be playing his club rugby next, but he’s likely to have a few interested parties. Before any decision, he will take a breather in the coming weeks, head for Inis Mór and take stock following a whirlwind year.

“I’m a free man so I’ll figure out the next move after a spell off to take it all in and visit home.”

Back in the Eagles fold this month after his stint in the UK, Mullen has started all three games so far and feels well prepared to take on this Irish team.

“Against Samoa, I was up against Logo [Logovi'i Mulipola], who’s the starting prop at Newcastle. We’d have been great friends and then all of a sudden for Samoa he plays loosehead so I’m up against a big lad and a tough day at the scrum.

“You’re playing these world-class players and the Irish team is no different.

“Pedal to the metal and that’s all I can do.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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