Three years ago, when BOD went down, we started a #thirteenwatch series – we joked at the outset that Deccie would take a careful look at all the contenders and pick Keith Earls anyway. In the event, when Face Doesn’t Fit got injured himself in January, Deccie’s decision was made for him – Cave was edging the shirt on form, but Deccie, 2012 edition, wasn’t one for taking a punt – this was the year of zero non injury-enforced changes. Anyway, Earls it was, and it was the right call – he had a good series and justified Deccie’s call. This year, the equivalent debate is at number ten – and will the Milky Bar Kid take a careful look at the contenders and pick Ian Madigan anyway?

Based on Joe Schmidt’s Ireland career to date, no one player is indispensable – any personnel loss has been ridden with ease, and this has included the likes of DJ Church, Sean O’Brien, Chris Henry, BOD and Tommy Bowe at different times – all have been replaced from within the squad without a huge discernible impact on performances and results. While it’s tempting to think Schmidt is an alchemist who can turn provincial base into national gold, he’s just the ultimate pragmatist – the system is everything, and every cog knows his role to a tee. The provincial academy system isn’t perfect, but it does tend to produce mature, driven and intelligent players (the type who are happy to go for a 10k run at 6am when they are 17) – this is a boon for Schmidt as even square peg backups (Rhys Ruddock the openside flanker?) tend to be able to slot into round holes in the system. However, if you were to peg any Ireland players as indispensable, you’d stick that label on Paul O’Connell and Jonny Sexton – both among the best in their position worldwide, anchors of a Lions series win (admittedly an ugly and scrappy one against a rubbish team) and pretty much impossible to replicate.

In O’Connell’s case, Iain Henderson, while a very different player, is likely to be the next giant of Irish second row play (metaphorically of course – Big Dev hasn’t gone away you know), but he isn’t there yet. In Sexton’s case, there is a cadre of players who are all of a pretty similar standard right now behind him – none offer quite the same combinastion of tactical brain, passing skill or on-field leadership, and none are currently making and ironclad case to be his backup. And it’s not just an academic question either – Sexton has been stood down and his return is at the mercy of the French medical system. Repeated concussions mean that training of any sort has yet to be possible, and the earliest return date is the 14th of February – when Ireland have the small matter of France at home and before which Ireland face Italy in Rome.   Given the importance of Sexton to the national team, and the fact that this is a World Cup year, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of not seeing Sexton in green until August. Schmidt is looking for not just a reserve, but a test starter.

In Joe Schmidt’s first season, the situation in November coalesced that if Sexton went down, Paddy Jackson would step in and start at 10, as was the case against Samoa, but that Ian Madigan offered a better bench option as he covered other positions in the backline – he was in the 23 for the Wobblies and BNZ. When it came to the Six Nations, Jackson had edged in front, manning the bench in four Six Nations games to Madigan’s one. Jackson was first choice at Ulster, while Madge was having a difficult season at Leinster and was stuck on the bench behind Gopperth.  The view in April was that Jackson would start in Argentina, and it looked like he would have a chance to cement his place as Sexton’s backup. Meanwhile, Munster’s Ian Keatley was further down the pecking order.

In the second half of this year, its tightened up considerably – Jackson went down with a back injury (related to his kicking style) and missed the Argentina tour.  Meanwhile, Madigan sparked into form in the Pro12 playoffs, albeit playing in the centre.  He played both games in Argentina and emerged in credit as Ireland secured two hard-fought, if workmanlike wins.

Jackson returned for Ulster’s ERCC campaign, but has looked rusty, and missed out on the squad for the November series. He has spent more time recuperating, but looked something like his old self in the RDS on Saturday – playing flat on the gainline and bringing the backline into the game well early on, but he faded from view as Leinster gradually got on top. His biggest problem is he is still not kicking goals – something that is recovery driven, for now anyway, although his place kicking has often been shaky.  Ireland do not have a Ruan Pienaar in the team, and the 10 will be required to kick the all-important two- and three-pointers.

This November, Madigan started for Ireland against Georgia and was in the 23 for the big games. He again played well in those matches, even winning the crucial penalty turnover to win the game against Australia.  He has recently been getting some extended gametime at outhalf for Leinster, and it’s fair to say its been a bit of a curates egg. He has been standing a mile behind the gainline and is struggling to get the Leinstertainment thing going. As ever, his tactical kicking – judging when to kick and executing well – is a way off the highest level, and this is the biggest black mark in his game.

We have the feeling that at this stage of his career, Madigan may never develop into a strong ‘controlling 10’, but he is outstanding at certain aspects of the game.  Keatley and an in-form Jackson are probably more rounded footballers, more Sexton-like, but neither offers the same game-breaking ability or explosiveness.  Even at provincial level, when the ERCC kicks back in and Matt O’Connor has full jurisdiction on team selection, it will be interesting to see if he reverts to Jimmy Gopperth – it would certainly seem the logical MOC choice for a trip to Wasps and their gargantuan pack. But it is also worth noting the Madigan’s goal kicking is not juist the best of the bunch but exceptional bny any standard – perhaps even better than Sexton’s (we can’t locate Sexton’s Top14 stats for a complete comparison – feel free to educate us):

  • Madigan 90.3%: Pro12 36/38 ERCC 20/24
  • Keatley 79.7%: Pro12 33/41 ERCC 14/18
  • Jackson 76.7%: Pro12 17/22 ERCC 6/8

Ian Keatley has been something of the ugly duckling of this bunch – given his career path it’s pretty tempting to dismiss him as a modestly talented journeyman. Indeed, until very recently, he’s been painted merely as a placeholder between Munster ligind Rog and future Munster ligind JJ Hanrahan – a filler-inner until Hanrahan is ready. In reality, since Keatley took over as Munster starter, he has continually improved and is playing at a level few – and not us – would have predicted possible two years ago. He still has a tendency to disappear out of games a little, but he is a solid option, and has the advantage of being Conor Murray’s regular partner.

Based on Joe Schmidt’s Spanish Inquisition-esque ruthless pragmatism, he will select whoever fits the system best – right now that seems likely to be Madigan, who is familiar with Schmidt’s methods and is effectively the incumbent. But it isn’t set in stone – this time last year, Madigan seemed likely to be backup for the Six Nations, but Paddy Jackson edged ahead in January. Jackson, nearly three years younger than Madigan and five younger than Keatley, has a more impressive body of work at that age that either of the contenders (it’s easy to forget how young he is – he is a month older than Ronan O’Gara was on the occasion of that Scotland game, and a year and a half younger than Sexton was when he got his first Ireland start), and seems likely to improve further as time time goes on – but in the here and now, he feels like a coltish and unreliable option. Plus he is coming back from an injury and re-modelling his kicking action to prevent further injury. We’d have him in third place at this moment.

Has Keatley done enough to oust Madigan?  At provincial level, you could certainly make that argument – Madigan has yet to be selected at 10 for a European game this season. Part of that is down to backline injuries and Madigan’s ability to fill other positions, but it makes it more difficult for Schmidt to pick him at 10 if he hasn’t been playing there in the important provincial matches.  It’s very easy to blame that on Matt O’Connor, but O’Connor is a professional rugby coach who sees Madigan every day, and is yet to be convinced that Madigan is the best outhalf he has. If Sexton was fit, we’d be 100% certain that Madigan would be in the 23 – but don’t rule out Schmidt picking Keatley to start and keeping Madigan in his 23. It’s still odds-against at this moment, but Keatley is pretty close right now.  It’s still all up for grabs, with two rounds of European matches to show what they can do.


Naturalised Kiwis? I’ll Take Two

Joe Schmidt pulled a surprise yesterday by announcing his panel for the November internationals a week early. We don’t know what the logic behind the premature announcement is; perhaps he just likes to keep us on our toes, the scallywag.

As invariably happens with these things, the squad is pretty large so talking points are kept to a minimum. The real sniping only really gets going when the team is announced for the first test, so keep your powder dry folks! Nonetheless, with five new caps, 15 injuries and one or two notable omissions there was a bit of information to be gleaned.

Jared Payne has long been earmarked for a role as a naturalised Irishman and his moment has finally arrived. Will he be auditioned for 13, where he still doesn’t appear entirely comfortable, or seen as back-up for Rob Kearney? A test debut seems probable in any case.

Connacht’s Darragh Leader is the beneficiary of both Connacht’s good start to the season and a scattering of injuries in the back three. He’ll be competing with Bowe, Zebo and Gilroy for selection on the wing and at the very least will get valuable exposure.

Dominic Ryan is rewarded for a strong start to the campaign after his career looked to have stalled. He was among Leinster’s better players against Wasps and in the absence of Sean O’Brien and Jordi Murphy, he adds welcome depth.

Munster’s Dave Foley looks a good pick having looked solid throughout Munster’s up-and-down start to the season. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see him named on the bench, because Mike McCarthy has looked a bit leaden for Leinster.

Of the five newbies, the biggest impact could be made by another naturalised Kiwi, Nathan White, Connacht’s rock-solid tighthead. With Marty Moore injured, there’s every chance he will leapfrog Stephen Archer and maybe even Rodney Ah You, who somehow remains in the panel, to perform the sizeable role of seeing out the match after Mike Ross collapses from exhaustion.

Elsewhere, the main talking point was Paddy Jackson’s omission. Schmidt has left out the Ulsterman in favour of Ians Madigan and Keatley. It’s a form call and one imagines if it was tight in the first place, this weekend’s events may have been the decisive pendulum-swing. While Keatley was being lauded for his drop goal heroics, Jackson rather summed up Ulster’s night in Leicester with a lackadaisical conversion which was charged down. It’s a very definite boot up the arse for Jackson, who will be well aware that in a World Cup year, one of he, Keatley and Madigan will find themselves squeezed out of the touring party. Get your game face on fella, starting this weekend against Toulon.

One player a shade unlucky to miss out is Duncan Casey. His lineout stats are unmatched in Europe this year, and neither Cronin nor Best are exactly technicians, so he would have dovetailed nicely. Richardt Strauss hasn’t done anything of note this season, but clearly Schmidt is a fan. Also missing out is Darren Cave, whose ship appears to now have sailed. Squeezed onto the bench at Ulster having failed to take his chance with Ireland this summer, it looks like other options will be explored.

There was better news for Tommy O’Donnell who is recalled. The Tipp man hasn’t quite hit the barnstorming heights of his early 2013 form, but he is at least out of the doldrums of last season. Another player who has been on the same up-down-up trajectory is Craig Gilroy, who looks back to something like the razor-sharp runner who stunned Argentina in one of the most memorable test debuts in living memory. Both play in positions with notable absentees and have a chance to stake a claim.  Now gentlemen, no more injuries, please.  Pretty please.  With sugar on top.

Bump in the Road

When Johnny Sexton’s move to Paris went through last season, quite a few voices suggested that it need not be bad news and that Ian Madigan, with enough exposure to top level rugby, could go on to be even better than Sexton.  We were quick to disagree.  It cannot be an improvement to discard one of the world’s elite 10s in exchange for one who might some day go on to be better.  There are too many variables in the latter.

Saturday’s match in Thomond Park rather bore out our logic.  In a game where there wasn’t a whole lot between the teams in terms of creative rugby, the game was won by Munster primarily in two areas; the breakdown and the tactical kicking game.  Munster frequently flooded the breakdown, while Leinster appeared reluctant to put the necessary numbers in to secure quick ball.  It negated Leinster’s attack, which relies on Eoin Reddan’s speedy delivery to the back-line.

The kicking battle was not even a contest.  Munster’s up-and-unders were accurate and, most importantly, brilliantly chased, with Keith Earls particularly impressive.  Even when a Leinster player caught the kick he was quickly engulfed by red shirts and couldn’t retain possession.  On one such occasion it appeared Rob Kearney had only the support of Eoin Reddan as he was swallowed up by a mass of the Brave and Faithful, and the ball was duly turned over.  By contrast, Leinster kicked loosely, and were passive in their chasing.  Much of the inaccurate wellying came from the boot of Ian Madigan.

Madigan has been rightly heralded as the next big thing in Irish fly-half play, but those who are anticipating that he will simply morph into a player of Sexton’s standing simply through playing Heineken Cup matches need to check their expectations.  His talent is unquestioned, but it takes time, and considerable learning experiences which won’t always be positive, to develop into the sort of serial match-winner that Sexton, and indeed, Ronan O’Gara were.

O’Gara wasn’t born an ice cool clutch-player, nor he did he become one overnight.  He had to earn it, through years of hard matches and bitter disappointments.  The same goes for Sexton, who had to endure frequent brickbats before maturing into a Lions test-winning ten – indeed, he once endured a spell of form so wretched it appeared he was on his way out of Leinster.  Ian Madigan will hit his share of bumps in the road and, hopefully, in overcoming those he will become a better player.  On Saturday he was outplayed by Ian Keatley, a player with a comparatively mundane skillset.  Keatley is in the same boat at Munster; replacing a provincial legend.  He had a good game on Saturday night, but he too, will have his share of issues as he tries to make the shirt his own.

The gulf between the ‘very good’ fly half who can look fantastic on his home patch and the great one, who can pilot his team to wins in Heineken Cup knockout matches and trips to the most intimidating grounds in Europe is wider than one might think.  In tough away games, refereeing decisions are usually unfavourable, the crowd will meet your every mistake with howls of derision and you need every point you can get to win.  Away wins in rugby are precious; even mediocre teams like Bath and Perpignan make for hard opponents on their home turf.  Talent alone isn’t enough; a special kind of mental fortitude is needed.  Think of Sexton’s last minute penalty to retrieve a draw in Montpellier, or the manner in which he controlled the game in Bordeaux to see Leinster through to a Heineken Cup final.  Or ROG’s half-way line penalty against Leicester to win the match, or his performance in the Stoop last season.

Some players simply don’t have what it takes.  James Hook, for all his natural ability, has never learned the fine art of consistent game management, nd his Perpignan team rarely win away.  Whether the Ians Keatley and Madigan become the next James Hook or go on to emulate the provincial legends and become serial medal-winners is still very much an open question.

P.S. How good was that James Cronin fellow?  What an impact he had!  We’ve had our suspicions that David Kilcoyne is a little over-rated by the red-clad supporters, but this chap looks The Bid’ness.

Keep your eyes on… Ian Madigan

The Irish Wolfhounds play England Saxons in late January in a game that should give Deccie a chance to look at a few up-and-coming options.  Who he picks to play fly-half will be of particular interest.  Wolfhounds fly-half may sound inconsequential, but with Radge moving towards retirement, Deccie will most likely be looking to groom someone he feels can back up, and challenge Jonny Sexton in the near future.

The choice would appear to come down to three Ians – Humphreys, Keatley and Madigan.  Humphreys has been the traditional choice for these games, and is the only one of the three that is first-choice at his province – but he’s now pushing 30 and management have made it clear that they believe his frailties are sufficient to ensure he won’t be making the step up to test level.  It’s time to move on.

That leaves us with Keatley and Madigan –  or Ewan Ma-dee-gan, as he will always be known to some.  Keatley has already played for Ireland and has a wealth of Pro12 experience with Connacht, but Madigan’s career graph is moving consistently upwards, and continued to do so on Friday night when he bagged another try and looked assured for most of Leinster’s rout of Cardiff.  Keatley, meanwhile, had the proverbial stinker in Munster’s pretty rank defeat to Ospreys.

Along with Devin Toner, Madigan is the most improved player in the Leinster squad.  Last season, most Leinster fans would have regarded McKinley as the more promising of the province’s two academy graduate out-halves, but Madigan has impressed hugely this term.  It is no exaggeration to say he is the best passer of a ball in the country, and his eye for a break, and pace to go with it, has seen him score four tries in six starts and four sub appearances so far.  A decidedly atypical Irish pivot, he plays more in the mould of an Aussie first-five, or a French 9-cum-10.

There’s still work to do.  Game management is an issue, with too many loose kicks and missed touchfinders (although he has got a big boot), and while this should improve with experience, it remains to be seen if he has ‘the mental’ to dictate a game in the manner that Jonny Sexton and Radge can.  The game is littered with talented out-halves who never learn this art – think of Shane Geraghty, Ryan Lamb or even James Hook.  His place-kicking has yet to be tested at Pro12 level, and we’re unlikely to see it for a while, given McFadden’s form with placed ball.  On Friday, well though Madigan played, Jonny’s cameo showed him where he has to get to – could Madigan have executed the deft cross-field chip for Dave Kearney, or the 75m gain from the penalty in his own 22?  The jury is still out, but with distribution skills to die for, this is one diamond that’s starting to polish up nicely.