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Will Carpenter

Will Carpenter writes

Posted Monday, January 25th 2021

John Muldoon: Forward thinking

Just 25-years-old and in the infancy of his playing career, John Muldoon was already making plans for life on the other side of the fence.

It was on the training paddocks of Monivea RFC in his beloved Galway that the iconic former Connacht captain first dipped his toe into the world of coaching, so determined was he that his post-playing days wouldn’t creep up on him and catch him off guard.

More than 300 appearances and one historic Pro12 title later, Muldoon swapped the west of Ireland for the West Country and is already thriving within Pat Lam’s coaching team, shifting from Defence Coach to Forwards Coach in the summer of 2020.

And the 38-year-old admits starting early has been a key aspect of his rapid rise in the coaching world.

Starting young

“As a player, when you come towards the latter end of your career, you worry about life after rugby and what you’re going to do, giving up rugby and missing the dressing room and missing everything that’s involved in the camaraderie and in rugby.

“For me, at an early stage of my career, coaching was something I was interested in. I didn’t want to be one of those coaches who turned around at the end of their playing career and suddenly decided wanted to be involved in coaching.

“So, I started quite young, at 25 or 26 years of age and went down a good few divisions to a social team and just thought I’d dip my toe in there once or twice a month and see how I went and if I enjoyed it.

“I knew from quite an early stage that I did and from that point on, I always had one eye on what other teams were doing, and when I was involved in the Irish camp, how people ran things, different styles of coaching, different styles of management.

“When it comes to your turn, it’s always going to be a bit different; people change, and personalities change. Young people have definitely changed since I came through, but I’ve enjoyed it.

“I can only speak well of my experience here (at Bristol Bears) – the people, the fans. Obviously, knowing Pat and Conor was a huge help in that, but I’ve really enjoyed it. It has been challenging at times, but also very rewarding and I think we’re on a very exciting journey here and I’m proud and happy to be a part of it.”

'Success comes in little wins'

In coaching terms, Muldoon is youngster, and insists he is learning every day. But after taking over the reins in the pack from Jonathan Thomas when he departed for Worcester Warriors, the former back row forward is already putting his own stamp on things at Ashton Gate – as the artistic lineout tries against Newcastle Falcons and Exeter Chiefs (see above) so perfectly demonstrate.

“It puts a smile on your face and have a little chuckle and it gives a warm feeling inside when you see plays like that come off. But ultimately, to get to that point, you have to earn it – and I know that’s a bit cliché, but the opposition needs to fear something else to be able to run a strike play like that, because if your maul isn’t good, then they’ll have multiple players standing off and they will easily defend that. So, there’s multiple things going on.

“Success comes in little wins along the way and I think I took over a well-oiled and well-drilled pack and just changing a few little things, while subtle, has made a bit of a difference, which is good to see, and part of that is just buy-in from the players and trust as well.

“I think you also have to make sure that while there are a lot of quality and world class players here, they can’t always be on the pitch, so it has to go down through the team and that’s been the biggest work-on and the biggest challenge, to try and improve everyone. We pride ourselves on training hard and I think there’s a new edge to the team that I saw two and half years ago, versus what we have now.”

Learning lessons

Muldoon admits that the idea of a career in coaching is very different to the reality, but not that it is a negative. Every day presents a fresh challenge and different players require different approaches, but the Bears Forwards Coach knows the importance of self-awareness when it comes to personal development.

“What you think from the outside looking in, is completely different to what happens, and I suppose you feel a little bit like you don’t want to let the players down, and sometimes, less is more. You battle with what you need to show players and what they don’t need to know, and it becomes a balancing act of the work that you put in and the prep that you put in, versus what you need to deliver.

“Sometimes, it can be like a sales pitch, but you need to get the balance and sometimes, you sit back and reflect on a meeting or a session and think ‘I didn’t get the best out of that’. As a young coach, I’ve made lots of mistakes and I think, unfortunately, I will continue to make mistakes, but you try not to make the same mistake over and over.

“Ultimately, you’re trying to get better and sometimes you’re trying to get better by a percent, and you don’t quite get what you desire out of a session, but you feel that the percent will make a difference and you have to try and change it while still getting your points across.

“It might take two or three of those sessions to get what you finally want. Certainly, there are areas when you look back and you think that was ‘novicey’ or that was naïve of me, but ultimately, you learn, and you progress.

“I’m not going to speak for Pat (Lam) or Conor (McPhillips), who have been doing this a lot longer than me, but I’m sure they look back and reflect at times and think they could have done something differently.

“It’s always a learning, and when you’re dealing with players from 37-years-old all the way down to 18-years-old, what you say to one person, doesn’t work for the next, so you need to be conscious of that too.”

One thing Muldoon is certainly conscious of is the ambition and potential at the Bears, and the man who helped bring a maiden league title to Connacht, will be hoping to do the same at Ashton Gate.


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