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With Sexton on the brink, what now for Madigan and Gopperth?

Matt O’Connor’s got a call to make.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

AS WE WAIT for Jonny Sexton to put us out of our misery and confirm whether or not he will re-join Leinster for the start of next season, there is also the continuing issue as to who will be the three-time Heineken Cup champions’ starting No 10 for the coming campaign.

When Sexton announced that he would be leaving for Racing Metro, the loss was somewhat mitigated by Ian Madigan’s fine form in 2012-13, as he finished the Pro 12′s top points scorer, as well as demonstrating, in what was an injury-plagued period for the Blues, what a gifted and versatile footballer he is.

At the time, the consensus was that he would seamlessly fill the void left by Sexton and things would go back to business as usual. But as Joe Schmidt departed on the back of a league and cup double (albeit the Amlin), and Matt O’Connor arrived, so too did Jimmy Gopperth.

O’Connor’s preference to a more direct approach to his predecessor, saw Leinster’s back play become slightly more rigid and tip towards the type of tactical adherence observed by Gopperth. Perhaps, with the departure of Sexton, Isa Necewa and limited playing time for Brian O’Driscoll, O’Connor deemed a more blunt attacking ethos was prudent.

Yet, Leinster often looked rudderless and devoid of creativity last season, and the continued osculation at half-back further compounded the issue. Matt O’Connor has admitted that this lack of continuity made his job considerably more difficult.

He tended to favour Gopperth in the bigger games, though his selection wasn’t always validated, as the Kiwi, for all his attributes, lacks Madigan’s incisive running and ability to improvise under pressure. The Heineken Cup quarter-final loss to Toulon probably best demonstrated how predictable Leinster had become.

It’s unquestionable that Madigan did himself no favours. He failed to continue in the same vein under O’Connor’s stewardship and, at times, played with too much reckless abandon. Having said that, he was never given a concentrated run of games to prove himself.

Subsequently, his international aspirations suffered and it appears so did his confidence. No longer the heir apparent, Madigan looked a shell of the player he was. O’Connor has been in situ long enough that he must now decide, conclusively, where he wants to take Leinster. The first step would surely be to choose a playmaker and stick with him.

On a national level, it would massively beneficial for Madigan to get the nod, but that’s not a concern for O’Connor, who hinted more than once that the Blackrock man’s future may lie at 12.

Jonny Sexton Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

If that is the case, and he uses Madigan as a second five-eighth behind Gopperth, with new recruit Ben Te’o playing as a bludgeoning second centre, it needs to implemented post haste. Because, at 25, Madigan no longer has the luxury of still not knowing what his best position is.

Gopperth is dependable and probably gives coaches less palpitations than Madigan, but he’s not a game-breaker that can turn a contest in a moment of magic. Madigan is. Pure and simple. His match-winning try against Ulster in the Pro 12 semi-final in May being the most recent example.

Madigan’s mercurial nature is both his greatest flaw and biggest weakness; that no one, including himself, knows what he’ll do next, probably hasn’t helped his cause at times. Yet, it’s why he’s a joy to watch, and the same reason we loved watching Carlos Spencer, Freddy Michalak and more recently, Quade Cooper.

O’Connor has been so vocal in his desire for Sexton to come home, neither Gopperth nor Madigan will feel they have the full backing of their coach, which in itself, may have an adverse effect. If and when Sexton returns, the former will likely depart at the end of his two year contract, but will Madigan be content to spend the majority of his club career as Sexton’s deputy? Only time will tell.

One thing is for sure, if O’Connor hopes to make a dent in the new European Rugby Champions Cup and convince Sexton Leinster is where is future lies, it would behoove him to put a cohesive, fluent philosophy in place, and be quick about it.

What do you think?

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About the author:

Tom Rooney

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