Saturday night saw another welcome development in the story of the precocious Ian Madigan. Another Man of the Match display in a Pro12 game, and the try he set up for Fionn Carr showcased his luminous talent. He has a fantastic, highly unusual (for Irish rugby) skillset: exceptional passing, breaking skills, eye for the tryline and now, solid place kicking [Aside: should Ferg be worried about this development?]. His weaknesses – game management and kicking from hand - are improving. Yes, we know he hasn’t successfully piloted a game through muck and rain in the style of the man he could potentially replace on the Ireland 22, Radge. Last year he carved up the Pro12 and started his first Heineken Cup game, at home to Montpellier. An international breakthrough seems inevitible this November.
But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify sitting him on the bench for the big games, no matter how well Jonny Sexton is playing. It’s getting to the stage where Madigan needs to take the next step in his career – starting Heineken Cup games regularly. WoC has been sniffy about complaints that Madigan ‘isn’t getting enough game time’ in the past, but this season, such is his quality, they will start to become relevant. Some hard decisions will have to be made.
What is Joe to do? He has a settled and successful team on the pitch, the best 10 in Europe, but has a seriously talented younger chap kicking his heels on the bench. He needs to balance the present, the future, and the maximisation of his existing resources. Can he get Madigan into the team, and how? Let’s look at the options:
- Status Quo. In this scenario, Sexton starts the big games and Madigan the Pro12 ones when Deccie says Sexton has a headache. At the very least Madigan will need to be given significant minutes off the bench in Heineken Cup matches.
- Sexton to 12. This was Deccie’s favoured ploy when he
didn’t have the balls to drop Rogdecided to play O’Gara and Sexton on the same pitch. To be fair, Sexton never looked uncomfortable, but yet, it never struck us as a viable long-term solution, and genuinely appeared as a sop to the bolshy Rog. Still, it fills what is aleady a problem position for Ireland, and is likely to become one for Leinster. Will Sexton, the best 10 in the Heineken Cup for the last two seasons and favourite to wear the Lions 10 jersey, be impressed with being taken out of the slot to accomodate the uncapped Madigan? In a word – no.
- Madigan to 9. This has been floated before, most eloquently by the Mole, but Madigan, unlike Giteau, has never played 9. It’s worth a shot if you feel it’s a genuine long-term option, but Leinster and Ireland are well-served in this specialist position, and it would look like a sticking plaster solution to accommodate both men in one team. And great as Madigan’s distribution is, passing from 10 is not the same as passing (and manging the tempo) from 9.
- Madigan to 12. With Ireland crying out for a silky distributor at 12, could Madigan, effectively, be the new Paddy Wallace? He’d have even more space at 12 than at 10. Ball-in-hand it looks a good fit, but the 12 channel is popoulated by monsters these days and while Madigan is a brave and competent defender, he probably lacks the sheer bulk to play there.
- Madigan to 15. Really? With Bob and Isa Nacewa in the squad? And Andrew Conway as the resident promising youngster? Not a runner.
- Stand Up And Fight. In this scenario, the incumbent (Sexton) gets unceremoniously benched for big games, and Madigan is thrown in to the first team. If Sexton becomes a bench-warmer at Leinster, he won’t be best pleased, and an iHumph-style flounce can’t be ruled out – could Sexy take over Rog’s red and green shirt?
No obvious solution then. No doubt Ian Madigan is aware that he is working with the best coach of backs in Europe, and it’s almost certain that without Joe Schmidt coaching him, Madigan would not be as far in his development as he is. It would be a wrench for him to leave all that behind, but this could be a summer for hard decisions.
Were he to look around, he would not lack for suitors. Both Munster and Ulster would be in the picture. Ulster are crying out for proven quality in the position and nobody knows how Paddy Jackson will go this season, while Niall O’Connor is squad player material. At Munster, the world and its mother knows that a legend is nearing the end of his career, and while Keatley has started this season well, doubts remain as to his ability at the very top level. Last year, you might have argued that Madigan’s skills could wither on the vine at those provinces, but the augurs are good under new coaching regimes. Mads would most likely have offers from abroad too, probably including franchises from the Super XV, to which his game would be tailor-made.
Leinster would surely hate to see such a special talent slip through their fingers. Somehow a way has to be found of getting him the necessary exposure to keep him happy and progressing at a suitable pace. Talent this special is rare indeed.