Connacht club captain John Muldoon is expecting a baptism of fire when he finally returns to action this evening.
The combative back row has endured a hugely frustrating spell on the sidelines having broken his arm twice in a matter of months.
Muldoon suffered the first setback playing for Ireland on the summer tour Down Under, with the damage ruling him out of action until late October. Just six games into his comeback, Muldoon injured the same arm and hasn’t played since.
But the 28-year-old is all set to make his first appearance of the year when Connacht welcome Aironi to The Sportsground for tonight’s rearranged fixture.
"I’ve spent the last week or two getting back involved and it’s good to be back on the pitch with the lads and away from the gym. It’s been a very frustrating year," said Muldoon, who has been one of Connacht’s standout performers over recent seasons.
"Breaking my arm in the summer and then coming back four months later and playing for just short of two months before the next break was very frustrating.
"The first time was a completely freak accident. To do it a second probably shows that I need to have a look at my tackling technique and not swing my arm as much!
"It’s part and parcel of sport, though. I’ve been lucky throughout my career not to have had too many injuries but that leads to a lot of frustration when you’re not used to being injured."
Despite his extended absence, Muldoon has kept close to the squad, attempting to ensure he never lost touch with a set up in which he has become a leading figure since his debut back in the 2003/04 campaign.
But although he and the Club did all they could to maintain that involvement throughout his time on the treatment table, Muldoon admits it still wasn’t the same as being caught up in the heat of the battle.
"You try and stay involved as much as possible. You’re talking to a lot of the players but it is hard because you’re used to being stuck in the middle and being involved in everything and suddenly there’s things going on on the pitch that you’ve haven’t seen before or you’re not used to or don’t have any input into," added Muldoon.
"The management try and keep you involved as much as possible but that sort of wears off when you’re injured for six months of the season!
"I missed the banter and missed playing rugby and being involved on matchdays. The matchday experience has been very frustrating to watch, seeing the lads training and then pulling on the jersey."
John Muldoon can't wait to be back in the thick of things
Muldoon will finally get another chance to don the Connacht shirt at a time when things are looking up for Eric Elwood’s side.
A seven-match Magners League losing streak was ended in February, with Muldoon’s team-mates winning three of the four matches that have followed.
An impressive recent run of five victories in six games in all competitions has increased the confidence within the camp as Connacht finally start to gain the rewards for a season in which performances have often better results.
"The performances all year have been on the up. There was a couple of games before Christmas that probably got away from us but I think we’ve got the highest number of bonus-point losses this season, which tells it’s own story. We’ve been competitive but we’ve just fallen short in a couple of games.
"Since Christmas, we’ve come out all guns blazing and have had a couple of good results and that breeds confidence.The fact that we’ve had a few good results over the last few weeks especially makes you even more aware of trying to get back on the pitch.
"It’s nice to be coming back into a winning team – the only issue there is that you’ve got to fight hard for your place, which is not a bad thing. Hopefully, I can get on the park this weekend and make an impact from the bench.
"I feel strong. Fitness wise, I feel quite good. Obviously, I’m not going to say I’m match fit or rugby-specific fit but I feel a lot stronger coming back. I’ve had a little bit more time to look after my arm and, hopefully, that will bode well and everything will go well for me over the next couple of weeks."
Muldoon is expecting a tough comeback against Aironi
Victory this evening would take Connacht up into seventh spot in the standings – two places above their highest-ever Magners League finish.
They face an Aironi side still searching for their first Magners League win in their debut season but that won’t lead to any sense of complacency from Muldoon and co.
Aironi have themselves been on the up recently, with five of their League fixtures in 2011 being decided by 10 points or less.
"We’ve a lot of respect for Aironi. I think in a lot of ways, Aironi are where we were two or three seasons ago.
"A lot of people over the years came to Connacht and probably thought we weren’t up to much and I’m sure Aironi are feeling that at the moment. So we certainly won’t disrespect them when they come here.
"They’ve got nothing to lose and I’m sure they’ve targeted the Connacht game since the fixtures came out as one for an away win. It was the same with Treviso last week. We know that they’ll bring a great attitude and a great endeavour to it, a lot like we do.
"They’ve had a new coach brought in over the last few months and he seems to be really getting the best out of his players. I think they’ve got a lot more to come. They’ve shown over the last few games that they’ve been very, very competitive.
"They’ve picked up a lot of losing bonus points, especially over the last two or three months since the new coach has taken over. The fact that no one has got a try-scoring bonus point out of them in the last seven games shows that they are improving and are a force to be reckoned with.
"The conditions at the moment in Galway aren’t great so I’d imagine it would be a forward-dominated fist fight. And then we’re playing them in two weeks’ time at their home so that will really show the strength and consistency of Connacht this season.
"I think a lot of people disrespect Aironi in the media and I suppose some supporters from the teams they play expect a walk over but we’re definitely not expecting that one bit."