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Dublin: 8°C Monday 18 January 2021

Four years on from Leinster departure, Madigan has all new outlook with Ulster

Ulster’s new recruit counted himself as a ‘purist’ about provincial representation. But he returns to ireland a more mature and rounded player.

Image: UlsterRugby/Robyn McMurray/INPHO

Updated Aug 14th 2020, 5:03 PM

IAN MADIGAN TAKES up his seat behind the company laptop, folds his arms on the table and peers down the camera to chat.

The high fade of the championship-haircut, the easy confidence, the Dublin accent and the assured gaze all remain almost exactly as you might remember them from his last outing for an Irish team.

But beneath, he has a red hand on his chest that comes with a change in outlook as he speaks with bouncy enthusiasm.

Madigan left Ireland and Leinster behind in 2016, setting off first for Bordeaux and then to Bristol. Neither stint turned out how he would have hoped.

Madigan admits that he counted himself ‘a purist’ when it came to provincial representation. But David Nucifora’s influence on Irish rugby in the intervening years has gone a long way to normalising the idea of crossing provincial lines. Purity sacrificed by spreading resources more evenly across for teams for the good of the international side.

“I would have strong thoughts about players moving from province to province and I’m a purist in that sense in that, ‘you’re from Leinster, you play for Leinster’…  but things have changed,” Madigan said this week.

“For me to have moved from Leinster to Munster or to Connacht or to Ulster at that time would have been a much bigger deal.”

Having pulled on jerseys in south-west France and south-west England, representing the side up the M1 from home is no longer such a stretch in his mind. And at the age of 31, he knows he could ill afford to stay off-shore any longer.

If I’d left it any longer, the ship would definitely have sailed for me to potentially get back into and Irish setup. I’m under no illusions, I’m still a long way off that happening.”

“My journey is what it has been, but look, I’ve arrived here. And while I’m not from Ulster or Belfast, I’ve been made feel very welcome and I can guarantee when I pull on that white shirt I’ll be giving it absolutely everything and that’s something that really excites me.”

The excitement is etched on his face, particularly when recounting the days after the move was finalised.

The rest of the world was being overwhelmed by the foreboding talk of lockdown, but for Madigan it was a new lease of life after being awarded just three appearances off the bench in the current Premiership season.

I don’t struggle to motivate myself to train, I like to think I train hard. but when I signed with Ulster I felt I was finding an extra 10-15% in my training session purely because the goal I was aiming at was motivating me so strongly.”

As he makes no secret of, what he’s working towards is a return to the green jersey. Before that, he knows he must regularly wear the white of Ulster to work his way into the international camp.

The Dubliner admits that he had not fully matured as an out-half when he upped sticks for France in 2016. Always a natural running threat with a fiercely-paced pass, he believes changes in the sport’s defence systems have brought him to play deeper. And his instincts to seek a break even from within his own 22 have been curbed with experience and guidance from coaches to respect the exit strategy.

“I’m probably thinking my way around a lot more,” Madigan 2020 says by way of comparison to Madigan 2016.

“If you think back to 2015, 2014, you could play a lot flatter to the line because defences didn’t come up as hard. The game has evolved now, so you actually can’t play as flat to the line consistently. You need to vary your depth, at times sit back and come on to the ball.

“I feel that’s been a big area when I’ve been able to adjust when I play flat and when I’ve got to hold back and give forwards outside me a bit more time on the ball.

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“Then, I suppose, simple things like exiting out of your own area wouldn’t have been something I’d have thought a whole lot about when I was in my early 20s. You’re a bit more care-free, but as I’ve grown older you realise how important that area of the game is.”

ian-madigan Source: UlsterRugby/Robyn McMurray/INPHO

There is no escaping the gleeful glance on Madigan’s face throughout the virtual press conference. He is thrilled to be back. He won’t go so far as to announce any regret in heading for France in 2016. Yet at a time when the IRFU is under financial pressure and wages are being cut, tempting offers from abroad will surely come for rising Irish talent on the fringe of the national team.

Madigan would urge such players to judge prospective new clubs with care and patience.

“It’s very important that you pick the right club to go to. For example, you want to be going to a club that there’s, ideally, a very good coach. That would be number one.

“I’d also be looking at what senior players are there that you could learn (from)…”

Madigan cites Adam Ashley Cooper in that role during his Bordeaux stint, but adds that the ideal destination club would be a fiercely competitive environment.

“You don’t want to got to a club where you could be potentially be getting an absolute drumming every weekend. Because that’s going to be really tough on you, both physically and mentally.

“Then, if you’re 24 or 25, I’d love to go to a club where you can really compete with someone so you can learn off them and be on rotation so you’re not playing week in, week out and being run into the ground.”

Madigan is primed for such a situation at Ulster, with Billy Burns the incumbent out-half Dan McFarland will theoretically have the option of rotating four experienced half-backs with Madigan competing to partner John Cooney or Alby Mathewson.

“Billy’s been great the last two years and I’m under no illusions that I have to really prove myself to get in ahead of him, but that’s something that motivates me massively and I’m sure it’s going to drive his game on as well.

“That’s what we want. He plays well one week, if I get an opportunity I play well the following week and we’re on a rotation. As opposed to having one guy getting run into the ground, playing five, six, seven games in a row then losing form or getting a knock, then the team loses form and it kind of has a knock-on effect.

“You want to keep the momentum in your season going and with the schedule that we have coming up now, with will hopefully five games, then a short break and then rolling into a full season, you need to have at least two guys in each slot to be able to rotate.

“Otherwise, you’ll just run yourself into the ground and if that happens, it’s very easy to lose three, four or five games in a row if you’re run out of steam and that can really derail your season.”

First published today at 07.00

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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