IRELAND DOESN’T PRODUCE too many players in the mould of Ian Madigan.
The Leinster out-half is fast, powerful, skillful and brave. He scores tries, kicks his points and as an added bonus, seems to enjoy the physical side of the game.
He’s the closest thing we have, potentially, to Carlos Spencer and currently occupies an important role in Irish rugby. The final 20 minutes decide almost all important games these days, and as we have seen in the last two seasons of professional rugby, impact off the bench is now essential, not optional.
Of all the impact positions, out-half is the most influential. Most countries in Europe are struggling to find one good out-half these days, never mind a replacement one that could completely change the gameplan.
An in-form Ian Madigan would be one of our most important players in next year’s World Cup but as things stand there are huge doubts around his ability to maintain high standards over a long period of time.
Last year he looked as though he was on the brink of becoming a really special player. His form and potential were such that when Jonny Sexton announced he was leaving Leinster there were genuine and valid calls for the younger man to be chosen ahead of Sexton for the closing games of the season.
He has the best pass in the country, exceptional footwork, walks the gain-line tightrope nicely and back then was producing a nice mix of offloads, grubbers, chip kicks and cross kicks.
That potential is still there, and his season has had some bright moments, but the cogs are currently out of sync. A few fundamental things have changed in the rugby life of Ian Madigan.
Joe Schmidt was such a big fan of his talents that he often found a spot for him at fullback. Schmidt has been replaced by the more cautious and clearly yet-to-be-convinced Matt O’Connor.
Madigan has gone from being a key man in two positions to one that was dropped after guiding Leinster to a win over Munster. That would be a jolt to any young sports person.
Given Madigan’s decision-making on the pitch this season the coaches have sometimes had no choice but to make Jimmy Gopperth their number one choice, but no player benefits from being rotated week after week, especially not in the number 10 position.
He would almost be better off being dropped for a couple of months so that he can go off and sulk, reboot his brain, and go after Gopperth again. As it is, he is in a no man’s land where Gopperth isn’t playing especially well but keeps getting back in, doesn’t impress the coaches, and so Madigan in turn gets re-selected.
This isn’t a Sexton/O’Gara or Humphreys/O’Gara situation where rivals are pushing each other to a new level; in fact, it appears to be damaging both men.
March looked like it would be a pivotal month for Madigan. He was on the field for the final ten minutes against France (having made the bench ahead of Paddy Jackson) after Sexton went off injured and on three occasions that month, against Munster, Glasgow and Zebre, he played the full 80 minutes.
He wasn’t exceptional against Munster in the Aviva but he got his backline moving in the second-half and kicked 17 points in front of 50,000 people. His inclusion probably wouldn’t have changed the result against Toulon but given how Gopperth played, Madigan’s exclusion is the worst decision Matt O’Connor has made in his time with the province.
The in-out selection policy, however, doesn’t fully explain what’s happened to Madigan this year. Some personalities are more suited to pursuing than being pursued, and now that Sexton is gone there is a new kind of pressure on his shoulders.
On the field he usually looks ultra confident, but against Ulster last week his game fell apart. It was his worst performance of the season and, unusually for him, his mind seemed to be working more slowly than the opposition’s.
Jackson – who himself did nothing special – was better than him on the night, which would have been another thorn in Madigan’s side. Leinster knew they had a problem the day Sexton left for Paris.
One year on, they’re no closer to finding a solution. On Saturday evening in the RDS, the home fans, Matt O’Connor and Joe Schmidt will be hoping to get a performance from the real Ian Madigan.