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Jackson column: Pity the players who can’t say goodbye to rugby properly

Aly Muldowney

He started off a long way down the English pyramid, seven divisions beneath the Premiership with hometown Stafford and worked his way up from there.

The first step took him to the dizzy heights of National League One with Stourbridge Lions; the second to the comparatively rarified atmosphere of the Championship at Moseley where he helped the famous old Birmingham club win a Cup final at Twickenham for the only time, beating Neil Back’s Leeds Carnegie to take the National Trophy in 2009.

The graph climbed steeply upwards from there: to the Celtic League and Glasgow Warriors, the Premiership at Exeter, the PRO12 at Connacht, the Top 14 at Grenoble, then back to England as a Bristol Bear. Now, four years after being a permanent fixture as the lone Englishman in Connacht’s historic triumph as Celtic champions, it’s all over.

Aly Muldowney has played his last game as a rugby professional. Instead of bowing out centre-stage to a standing ovation, he has no option but to take his leave behind locked doors without the vast majority being any the wiser.

In a perfect world those leaving after years of yeoman service would be accorded one last hurrah. Instead a world infected by a pandemic has already put paid to the season long before its scheduled close.

Isa Nacewa, the celebrated Kiwi who marked his retirement by kicking Leinster’s winning penalty in the 2018 Champions Cup final against Racing, raised the subject on Facebook. “Spare a thought,’’ he said. “For your team-mates and brothers who will retire at the end of the season and may have played their last game.

“The last thing we want is more depression, mental struggles, or worse, suicide, that has scarred our rugby community in recent years!!’’

Muldowney, acutely aware of sport’s relative triviality at a time of global crisis, is most definitely not complaining. “I’m not too fussed,’’ he says. “I’ve had my time and it’s been amazing. No regrets other, perhaps, than I’d love to have got into the game sooner than I did.’’

As late converts to rugby go, Muldowney was among the latest. “I played basketball at high school and represented the Midlands,’’ he says. “I played football as well but for a couple of years after leaving school I didn’t play any sport.

“Then at 19 or 20 a mate asked me to Stafford Rugby Club in Midlands 2 West. They were short of backs so I started on the wing and then, being the tallest, they thought I might be better off in the second row.

“We all paid our subs so, in effect, we were paying to play, not the other way round. The first time I got paid was at Stourbridge, something like £50 per win, £75 at most.’’

Muldowney was 26 when he signed his first full-time contract, for Glasgow. Now, coming up 37 with his Bristol agreement running out in June, injury and the coronavirus have conspired to end his career ahead of schedule.

The same fate awaits a host of others, some far older. Castres’ Kiwi prop Karema Wihongu is the daddy of them all at 40, followed by his club colleague, the Uruguayan Rodrigo Capo Ortega at 39.

Ma'a Nonu
Kiwi great: All Blacks centre Ma’a Nonu had been playing in Major League Rugby for San Diego Legion. Stuart Walmsley/Getty Images

The prolific Brock James is hanging up his boots at 38 after ten years in the Top 14. Ma’a Nonu, 38 next month, is confronted by the same prospect following the suspension of Major League Rugby in the US with his franchise, the San Diego Legion, top of the table.

Lyon loose forward Julien Puricelli (38), Northampton’s All Black prop Ben Franks (37), Stade Francais wing Julien Arias (36), Bath back rower Francois Louw (almost 35), Ospreys’ utility back James Hook (34), Bristol’s ex-Leicester No.8 Jordan Crane (33) are all retiring, without fanfare.

Muldowney is busy looking forward to life post-rugby along with wife Sammi and their children. His new job will be with the Caudwell Children charity as set up by the billionaire businessman David Caudwell.

“There are more lucrative jobs but I like working in the charity section,’’ Muldowney says. “I find it more rewarding.’’

Rugby will wish him well.


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