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Dan Sheridan/INPHO Ian Madigan at the Champions Cup launch.
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'Ireland is a bit of a pipe dream for me at this stage, but if I didn’t have that hope...'
33-year-old Ian Madigan is more focused on being involved with Ulster.

LAST UPDATE | Dec 1st 2022, 8:33 AM

THE LAST OF his Ireland caps came back in 2016 when he was still at Leinster. Ian Madigan is 33 now. He hasn’t been able to get consistent game time in Ulster over the past two seasons.

But still that fire burns. Madigan knows he isn’t in Ireland contention now but he would love to pull the green jersey on again. That won’t ever leave him.

“I was disappointed with the year last year,” said Madigan at the Champions Cup launch in London this week. “I barely made 100 minutes.”

He says the 2021/22 campaign was “one of those seasons, I got a bit unlucky.”

There was just one start against the Bulls. He was supposed to be at number 10 for one of the festive inter-pros but got injured that week. He might have actually started the URC final had Ulster reached it. Billy Burns was injured late on in the semi-final but the northern province let a winning position slip at the death against the Stormers.

“If we win that match, suddenly I’m starting the final,” said Madigan. “Regardless of what’s gone on before you lead Ulster to winning a trophy, it suddenly turns it into a very successful year. It wasn’t the case.

“I’m a million miles away from being involved in the Irish picture. My focus is very much trying to get back into the Ulster squad, get into the 23, compete to be in the starting XV.

“If you can do that in Ireland, you are never a million miles away. If you can put together three, four, five good performances, a run in Europe, a run in the URC, then suddenly you are involved in the wider picture.

“It’s a bit of a pipe dream for me at this stage but if I didn’t have that hope, I don’t think I would be still playing the game. Maybe now is the time to step away but I didn’t feel that time had come yet.”

Madigan has 31 Ireland caps to his name and started the World Cup quarter-final in 2015. He featured in the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations successes under Joe Schmidt too. His is a very respectable Test rugby CV.

And so, he doesn’t feel like he has any unfinished business with Ireland.

“I’m very comfortable with what I have achieved,” he said.

“I still have an ambition to do more in the game. I think it is hard when you have someone like Johnny [Sexton] ahead of you but he’s also older than you. You think, ‘Well he’s still doing it.’ What’s stopping me from keeping going for another few years?

“While I am very envious of the position he’s in, he’s a great motivator. To see that he’s still leading Leinster and Ireland is incredible.”

ian-madigan Ryan Byrne / INPHO Madigan last played for Ireland in 2016. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

The desire not to be in Sexton’s shadow was a large reason for Madigan leaving Ireland in 2016 when he signed for Top 14 side Bordeaux. He wasn’t happy to play back-up at that stage of his career and got a strong two-year offer from France.

His time in Bordeaux only lasted one season.

“I thought it was a good move,” said Madigan. “They were a side on the up, they had just got into the European Cup. Unfortunately, the move itself didn’t work out for multiple reasons that I won’t go into much detail on but as an experience it was great for me.

“Moving away really helped me to grow up. Leinster was great for me in so many ways but everything is poured on for you and you don’t really have to think for yourself. I had never properly lived away from home and now I had to fend for myself and learn a new language, meet 50 new players, and deal with a new culture.”

Back on the market, Madigan was sold a new dream by Pat Lam in Bristol, who were about to start a rebuild from the second-tier English Championship. Off the Irishman went on a three-year deal.

“That was a tough decision to make because you go from playing in a World Cup quarter-final two years previous and then, no disrespect to them, you’re playing Cornish Pirates and there’s 300 people there,” said Madigan.

“It’s a big fall from grace. But I bought into the vision Pat had and that year in the Championship, as mad as it sounds, was one of my most enjoyable years playing rugby.”

His second season was a happy one too as Bristol maintained Premiership status with a ninth-placed finish. His final year in England was frustrating as he featured infrequently following the emergence of Callum Sheedy.

The return to Irish rugby came with Ulster, initially on a one-year deal that was soon extended after a fine first season. Madigan is very happy with his lot but there is always a little wonder about what might have been had he taken a different path.

“You look back and you’d love to have been able to live four or five different lives and see where they would have led you,” is how Madigan put it.

He is now a senior figure in the Ulster group, working closely with many of the younger stars as he looks to impart his experience while still competing for a place in Dan McFarland’s team.

This is the last season of his Ulster contract and he turns 34 in March, so he knows he could be close to the end in terms of playing.

“I’m under no illusions that the average playing career is seven years and I’ll have doubled that at the end of this year,” said Madigan. “Is there another five years in me? I don’t think so!”

luke-marshall-celebrates-scoring-a-try-with-john-cooney-and-ian-madigan Bryan Keane / INPHO Madigan hasn't featured heavily for Ulster over the past two seasons. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

He has been proactive in preparing for life after rugby, although he doesn’t rule out coaching in the future. Madigan is involved in a company called Dataships, who sell software “mainly around GDPR solution and growing companies’ email capacity.”

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He’s a board member and works in a business development role, learning the trade on days when he’s not busy training with Ulster and jumping onto the laptop in the evenings to catch up.

“It’s been great having that outside of rugby, so when you have the disappointment of not being selected you can still have the focus during the week of driving on the second team but also when you come home in the evening, you get on the laptop and engage in something that gives you satisfaction outside of playing the game.”

But there is plenty of motivation on the pitch too.

Madigan wants to help Ulster to end their trophy drought. He was at the reunion of the 2011 and 2012 Heineken Cup-winning Leinster teams last weekend and the thought struck him that Ulster now find themselves with a similar set-up.

“I look back on 2011, ’12, ’13 with Leinster and think, ‘What was special then?’” said Madigan.

“It was the hunger of the older players; the likes of Drico, D’Arce, Shaggy, Shane Jennings, Leo Cullen; their hunger to win more and that sense that their careers weren’t fulfilled. And I look at Stu McCloskey, Luke Marshall, Iain Henderson, John Cooney, Rob Herring; guys who have been at Ulster a long time – they’ve an insatiable appetite to win.

“At Leinster, that married up nicely with that blend of youth and what came with that was bulletproof confidence and an ability to back it up.

“Ulster have that now, you look at some of the young lads who have broken through; the likes of Nathan Doak, James Hume, Mike Lowry, Rob Baloucoune – even Tom Stewart this year who has been fantastic.

“We’ve got guys coming through who are champing at the bit, we’ve got that depth and some of our training matches now are as tough as games.

“I don’t think Ulster had that in the past, but it’s the first time Dan has the strength in depth to rotate and compete in both competitions.

“I think this is going to be our year that we get some silverware.”

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