Tenwatch

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.

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Time to Get a Move On

For all the jolliness around Irish rugby right now, for a handful of players this season has been one frustration after another. And things could be about to get more frustrating for some of them when the teams are announced for the Heineken Cup knockouts this weekend.

Despite knocking Paddy Jackson off the bench for the final round of the Six Nations, this has not been a campaign to remember for Ian Madigan. After two years of huge gains, the departure of Jonny Sexton looked set to hand him the breakthrough he needed, but instead Madigan has found himself struggling to oust the less heralded Jimmy Gopperth. Gopperth is a fine player and has numerous strengths, but if Madigan was playing like he did last season he’d be starting all the big matches. He just hasn’t got going yet. Every time we see him inked into the starting team for a home game we get the feeling his season is about to spark, but so far it hasn’t really happened. He played well enough against Munster, but his kicking game remains loose and his superb gainline passing hasn’t been in as much evidence this year, with O’Connor appearing to play him deeper behind the gainline. For the Toulon game, Jimmy Gopperth is probably slight favourite to get picked.

Another who has only played in fits and starts this season is Kevin McLaughlin. Injury hasn’t helped, but his form since returning has been spotty to say the least. He was a weak-ish link against Munster, and the memory of his explosive 20 minutes against New Zealand has receded somewhat. He wasn’t involved in even the training squads for the Six Nations, and now has to contend with a new sheriff in town at Leinster in Rhys Ruddock. Ruddock is a 6 in the Simon Easterby mould, a good lineout catcher who gets on with the ‘unseen work’ of carrying slow ball and clearing out rucks, and if fit is likely to be selected ahead of McLaughlin. With Jordi Murphy and Shane Jennings vying for the No.7 shirt, McLaughlin could find himself outside the 23 altogether.

Meanwhile, up in Ulster, they have their backline all fit (apart from Olding) for the first time in a long time. Bowe and Trimble are undroppable and Marshall plays 12. One has to miss out between Craig Gilroy and Darren Cave, with Jared Payne able to switch between 15 and 13. This weekend, it was Cave who got selected. He’s been one of Ulster’s most consistent players this season and while the clamour to get Payne into the 13 shirt has some, shall we say, external motivators, Ulster are still best served by him playing 15. It means Gilroy loses his starting place. It’s been a difficult year for Gilroy, who, like Madigan, just hasn’t really sparked into life. His exceptional performance against Argentina in 2012 underlined his explosive talent, but he hasn’t been able to replicate it since then. And where has the scoring nous gone?  He scored eight tries in 14 appearances in his first season, but the well has dried up. He managed just one last year and three this, last scoring in mid-December.

Down south, Donnacha Ryan could do with catching a break. He was one of the best players in the country in 2012, but has since then gone from injury to injury. A lacklustre 2013 Six Nations which he appeared to play through an injury scuppered his Lions chances and since then he’s had a pretty stop-start time of it. Now he’s once again doubtful for the game against Toulouse. He’d be a big loss to Munster, because Donncha O’Callaghan is no longer at this level and it’s a sizeable step down to Dave Foley. In the meantime, Devin Toner has cemented his place in the Ireland team, and next year should be a breakthrough for Iain Henderson, with Muller retiring. The heat is on. Schmidt’s singling of Ryan out for his work on the training paddock was a reminder of how highly he is regarded, and rightly so, but he needs an unbroken run of games to build some momentum.

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.

The King is dead, long live … Ian Keatley?

The new season approacheth.  The season tickets have arrived.  Anticipation builds.  We’re back in the hotseat.  Rather than write dullsville ‘season previews’ for each Irish province, we’re going to focus on a couple of themes that will be woth following over the season.  First up, the impossible art of replacing the irreplaceable.

With the move of Ronan O’Gara from the playing sphere into the coaching sphere, it isn’t just Rodrigo Roncero who is devastated by the news. The last time Munster started a season with someone other than the apple-cheeked charmer at outhalf, Munster weren’t even … Munster, as we now know them. It was still the era of bugger-all fans, Shannon making a serious pitch to play in their stead in the HEC and an unknown shrewd and reticent Cork teacher taking training sessions off his own bat. The soaring ambition, silverware and modern stadium that now characterise Munster rugby were such pipe dreams as to be a laughable conceit.

Whoever steps into O’Gara’s boots in the long term has to deal with the expectation and standards that his generation brought to the table – keeping the score to less than 50 isn’t where they are at now. O’Gara might have played like a pub player at times for Ireland last year, but he was instrumental in guiding Munster past the Awesome Power of Chris Robshaw and Harlequins and then putting the heart across Mental Strength Gurus Clermont Auvergne in the next round.

For all the impressive performances Ian Keatley put out in the first half of the Pro12, and his apparent greater suitability for Rob Penney’s vision for Munster, he never hesitated in selecting Radge for those massive games.

But now that Radge is sipping Cotes du Rhone with Pippo Contepomi in Mario Ledesma’s Parisian bolthole, will Keatley be able to step up to the plate and be that HEC standard outhalf Munster need? Keatley has shown himself to be a capable fly-half, but worryingly inconsistent.  He can look great one minute and mediocre the next.  Can he put in the sort of performances Munster will need to steer them around the toughest grounds in Europe?  Moreover, patience isn’t going to be given to a guy who has had two years to learn from O’Gara. Plus the age profile of other Irish out-halves combined with career path of Keatley means that this is essentially his final chance to nail a starting shirt in the HEC for an Irish province. No pressure.

The Munster faithful are putting a huge amount of faith and hope in young gun JJ Hanrahan, who has looked a genuine playmaker on the few occasions we’ve seen him.  Problem is, dropping a guy with a handful of appearances (just five starts, all bar one at inside centre, and six reserve appearances) into a key position and asking him to emulate the best you’ve ever had is such a huge ask as to be ridiculous. Again, no pressure. At least when Ulster threw Paddy Jackson in at the deep end, Jackson had come through years of schools and underage rugby playing the position exclusively – and for all that, Jackson’s tenure at fly-half for Ulster has been far from smooth.  It was only when Ulster held Jackson back from last year’s JRWC that Hanrahan played at 10, deputising for the pear-cheeked Belfast crooner.

The trouble with replacing O’Gara is that it has to happen not only on the pitch but in the hearts and minds of the fans.  As great a player and dominant a personality as Jonny Sexton admitted that he struggled with it for a long time.  For Ian Keatley, it will be pressure on a scale he has never experienced.  We also have a sense that among Munster fans, he is on the backfoot a little, and is seen as a bit of a Leinster reject.  The will of the people is for Hanrahan to leapfrog him into the first team.  At least his replacement won’t have to endure ROG-cam every time he fluffs a kick, although we won’t rule out RTE having a special set-up cutting to ROG in his Parisian living room watching on telly.

One other key reason for Munster to get this one right revolves around the future of the man who’ll be dishing out the passes to either of these men – the Lions best scrum half and Simon Zebo’s good friend, Conor Murray. The good news for whoever ends up playing at 10 is that they will be paired with an authoritative and skilful scrum-half.  The bad news (for the IRFU) is that they have to pay him his worth and satisfy his ambitions.  With Murray’s performaces last season and his ongoing (and mystifying) contractual wranglings, you can bet your bottom dollar there will be some French clubs dangling huge carrots under his nose in the coming months (remember Sexton’s conversations with the union and RM started to get serious in November last year) – if outhalf becomes a problem position for Munster and begins to look like a multi-year project, will Murray consider strolling off to, say, Perpignan for a few years in the sun and come back when it’s sorted? Maybe, maybe not.

These are interesting times at fly-half for all of the ‘big three’, with Ian Madigan about to be thrust into the role of first choice 10 at Leinster, while up North, Paddy Jackson is continuing to try and stamp his authority on a team where the scrum half acts as chief playmaker.  With O’Gara out of the picture, the role as deputy to Sexton at international level is up for grabs.  Of the chasing pack, Madigan is currently well in front, having made the Lions reserve list and been selected on the summer tour of North America, but things can change quickly.

Munster might appear to have a bye to the HEC quarter-finals, but it’s easy to forget how often O’Gara took the points that his pack were offering up – if Keatley or Hanrahan don’t impress early on, a double header with a rejuvenated USAP suddenly will begin looking pretty tough and must-win. Just the way O’Gara would like it – what about Keatley or Hanrahan?

Leinster’s New Man

Matt O’Connor will be the next Leinster head coach.  He’s already met the players apparently, and the decision will be announced in the next few days.  It’s a swift turnaround from Leinster Rugby, who must have foreseen how things have since transpired with Joe Schmidt from the moment Louis Picamoles scored the equalising try in Lansdowner, or perhaps from the moment BNZ rolled out that 60-burger in June.

But who is this new coach and will he be any good?  Confession time: we don’t really know anything about him first hand.  So, as always, we welcome input from those who do.

Here’s what we do know.  He’s been Richard Cockerill’s right hand man at Leicester since 2008, where his job title was ‘Head Coach’, but he has effectively been their No.2  and before that he worked with the Brumbies, whose attacking style (think George Gregan and Stephen Larkham) apparently greatly informs his rugby philosophy.

Michael Dawson has made two winning appointments in a row by targeting young, ambitious coaches who have served an apprenticeship as a No.2 or performed well with a smaller club.  This appointment continues the theme.  With both Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt, Dawson got exactly what the doctor ordered, can he do so for a third time on the spin?  Cheika was brought in to stiffen the team up, and Schmidt to bring back some of the traditional flair that had been sacrificed in the process.  This time around, the watchword is ‘continuity’.  Schmidt’s Leinster ain’t broken, and O’Connor will be tasked with keeping the wheels turning smoothly, while dealing with some bumps in the road that lie ahead (more of this later).  Like Schmidt, he’s a technical coach with clear ideas on how the game should be played, and favours a running game with ball-in-hand.

Without being close enough to the goings on at Leicester, it’s hard to know just how much to attribute of what goes on there to him, but the augurs are reasonably good.  Leicester have never been a club readily associated with free-flowing rugby, but they do play a decent brand of footie.  They routinely top the try-count in the Premiership, usually by a large margin and were involved in the best game of Heineken Cup rugby of the season, a thrilling 15-15 draw with Ospreys played at breakneck pace for 80 minutes.  Ben Youngs is their key player and the backline works off his running angles and ability to bring those around him into play.  Yes, Manu Tuilagi is an important weapon for them and, no, Leinster don’t have any backs of his ilk, but not everyone in the Leicester backline is an Island-built monster.  Matt Tait is their fullback and former Leinsterman Niall Morris is holding down a starting berth on the wing.  All that said, they did play Toulouse with Thomas “the Tank Engine” Waldrom at openside this season, prompting us to tweet that if they won it would disprove all we thought we knew about the game.

Ok, so it’s another attack-minded coach who seems to have the ability to get his team scoring tries.  Sounds good.  But what sort of challenge awaits O’Connor?  For starters, Joe Schmidt is a tough act to follow.  Matching Schmidt’s achievements seems almost impossible but if O’Connor can at least match the class with which Schmidt conducts himself, that will be half the battle.  Leicester and Cockerill in particular have a reputation for whinging and that won’t endear him to Leinster fans.  In order to keep Leinster competitive at the sharp end of the Heineken Cup and Pro12, he’ll have to deal with a number of looming obstacles.  Three stand out as the most obvious.

  1. No Jonny Sexton next season.  Schmidt immediately identified Sexton as the key player in the Leinster team, and under his tutelage the fly-half has graduated from a fleetingly brilliant but occasionally jittery fly-half to a consummate matchwinner and Lions walk-in.  O’Connor will be seeking to do the same with Ian Madigan.  The process has already started, to the extent that Madigan was apparently strongly considered for selection in Gatland’s party this week.  The talent is all there and if indeed O’Connor is a Brumbies man through and through, he may well perfectlysuit Madigan, who has always looked like an Aussie five-eighth born in the wrong hemisphere.  O’Connor must build Leinster’s gameplan around the Blackrock kid’s unique attacking instincts.
  2. Tighthead prop. A province with a tighthead problem?  Come on in, Munster and Ulster will say, the water is fine.  Mike Ross won’t be able to go on forever and at 33, looks a shade over the hill, with this season’s performances a notch down on the previous two.  Michael Bent is not the answer, and it must be frustrating to see Jamie Hagan finally hitting his straps just as he is making for the exit.  There do appear to be prospects in Tadgh Furlong and Martin Moore, but producing props is a slow process; how long before they are ready to step up to regular Pro12 commitments, let alone Heineken Cup?  No obvious solution exists.
  3. Centres.  It seems increasingly likely Brian O’Driscoll will play on for another season.  Gordon D’arcy’s form for Leinster has been mostly excellent this season, and he seems to be very much on Madigan’s wavelength when they have played together.  The two old lags have at least one season left in them, but after that, who knows?  Fergus McFadden is the likely replacement for D’arcy, but he is a slightly less polished diamond (basically he’s the new Lewis Moody), double-chip-and-gathers notwithstanding.  At outside centre, things are sketchier.  Eoin O’Malley’s season has been a write-off and he needs to prove his fitness and deliver on his undoubted class next season if he is to be considered a suitable long-term replacement. And then there is Luke Fitzgerald.

If O’Connor can get over these hurdles, he will be well on his way.  Second row looks considerably brighter than it did twelve months ago, with Mike McCarthy arriving next season, Leo Cullen rejuvenated and staying on for one more year, Quinn Roux starting to make appearances (which is more than could be said with Ed O’Donoghue and Steven Sykes) and Devin Toner posting a very strong finish to the season.  He inherits a club with strong support, a winning culture and great players.

El Madrigal o Juan del Zextonio por el semifinal contre Biarritz?

Remarkably, Leinster have a selection dilemma at fly-half for this weekend’s semi-final against Biarritz.  It’s a scenario that seemed almost unthinkable until recently: that Sexton, Leinster’s best player and on-field general may not be an automatic choice for an important European game.  Incroyable!

It’s testimony to the strides made by Madigan in the ten weeks where Sexton has been injured (and, admittedly, the fact that it’s the Amlin).  It’s not that long ago that Leinster fans were crying into their moccha-frappucinos over Sexton’s departure, but now the anguish has been replaced by a sort of cautious optimism (the signing of Kirchner notwithstanding).  Madigan has set about the last number of weeks as if on a crusade to prove wrong the preconceptions many pundits have of him.  Can’t place kick off the tee?  Try 85% and top scorer in the Pro 12.  Great at home, but can he manage tough away games?  Wins in Adams Park and Thomond Park sound hard enough.  Can’t kick out of hand?  That part of his game is rapidly improving.  It’s reached the point where Madigan and the Lions have been mentioned in the same sentence.  There was a bump in the road against Ulster, but he responded as well as possible.

If one was to argue that the returning player has to earn the shirt back from the incumbent, there’s a strong case for retaining Madigan for the Biarritz match, such is his form.  Indeed, factor in that Sexton is leaving at the end of the season, and the strength of the argument compounds itself.  Joe Schmidt has already hinted that with a six-day turnaround, he might favour a number of those who didn’t play on Sunday.  That would mean Madigan starting.

But for all that, those with short memories need to cast their minds back to just how good a player Sexton is.  We’re talking about the de facto Lions test outhalf here. Would Leinster have won the last two Heineken Cups without Sexton? Unlikely.  If anyone has really forgotten, Sexton provided them with a reminder against Zebre in his return.  He kicked all his goals, made several clean breaks and knitted the backline together.  It was business as usual.  While Madigan has an air of what-will-he-do-next about him that gets supporters out of their seats, Sexton’s cool authority is undoubtedly preferred by his team-mates when the heat is on.

It’s easy to have one’s head turned by hugely talented players, but there exists a gulf between players who catch the eye with tries and linebreaks and those who deliver silverware.  Contepomi was the latter, but it was only when Sexton entered the fray that Leinster made the leap into greatness.  Madigan is a hugely exciting, wonderful prospect, but it’s not yet clear if he’s the sort of player who can consistently win finals.  It would ultimately be cruel luck on Madigan to drop him after doing so much so well in recent weeks.  Indeed, if Madigan is making a late, late bolt onto Gatland’s radar, he almost certainly needs to start and excel this weekend to have any chance of being in the Lions squad, so it would probably drive a nail into that coffin.

Madigan will at least know that his time will come, and that next season he’ll be starting these sorts of games.  When the news that Jonny Sexton was leaving, a number of Leinster fans suggested giving Madigan the rest of the season to acclimatise.  As it transpired, with Jonny’s injury, he has been given plenty of opportunities, and taken them. He’ll get many more next season, when the pressure will ramp up again – it’s one thing to win in Adams Park, yet another to beat Clermont in Bordeaux.

But the whiff of silverware has a habit of shaping priorities, and the majority of diehard Blues will be looking for Leinster to put their best team out to redeem what’s been a difficult season.  There are two cups to play for and Schmidt will look to his cup-winning fly-half to win them.  Jonny Sexton should start against Biarritz.

Lions Post #5: He’s a Killer He’s a Flash Boy Oh

With Wazza currently busy deciding which addresses to send his Power of Four Wristbands to in the mail, the weeks are running out to make a good impression on the old boy.  But a handful of players are making a late bolt, and some of them are some right flash geezers.

The question we’re asking this week is this – just how much room does Wazza have in his squad for flash dandies with lopsided haircuts and a bit of a strut about them?  He’ll want a combination of hard-nosed experience and the fearlessness and brashness of youth.  After all, someone has to pose for the cameras in the commemorative DVD (which may or may not contain emotional montages, sepia-tinged clips of a thinner Jeremy Guscutt dropping a goal and a lot of talk about what it means to wear the Lions jersey), and the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Sam Warburton will be far too sensible for that type of carry-on.  Plus the last tour would have been nothing without Donncha O’Callaghan pulling Ian McGeechan’s trousers down.  Yes, the Lions tour needs a bit of pizzazz, and the three players we’re looking at today are the men to provide it.

Simon Zebo couldn’t strictly be described as a bolter, as he’s been progressing very nicely for about two seasons now.  In fact had he not been cruelly struck down by injury in the Six Nations he could be more or less nailed on by now such was his form, but he looks like he’ll be able to overcome that setback.  He looked pretty sharp against Harlequins, with one particular take and offload catching the eye.  A couple more performances of the same ilk in the next couple of weeks and Zebo can add another pair of socks to the list of those he’s worn around his ankles.

In general the wing is the most bolter-friendly position, because it’s the one position where greased-lightning whippersnappers can get into the team, and confidence and pace are the order of the day, rather than grizzled experience.  One can get by on instinct.  With that in mind, Wasps’ fastman Christian Wade must at least come under consideration.  Yes, he’s a rough diamond and probably not the greatest defender in world rugby, but in the modern game, where space is increasingly difficult to find on the pitch, a fellow who can beat his man on the outside is incredibly valuable.  And, yes, dude is pretty flash.  With Chris Ashton playing like a drain for most of the season (he did claw back some credibility in Saracens’ win over Ulster on Saturday), Wade is worth bringing for his gas alone.

One thing Wazza should be doing is ensuring he has variety in his squad.  Were he to bring, say, Cuthbert, North (both nailed on), Bowe and Visser, he’d have four rather similar players; big strong fellows who can run hard and through people.  There should be room for an elusive runner in the party, and Wade and Zebo fit the bill.

One other player alleged to be making a bolt in some excitable quarters is Leinster’s precociously gifted Ian Madigan.  Wazza was there to see his headline-grabbing 28-point haul on Friday night, which added another feather to his cap, albeit in a scattergun match which suited his mentality.  It seems a done deal that Sexton and Farrell will make the cut, but there’s probably room for one more, and with Rhys Priestland injured (and overrated anyway), options are thin on the ground.  Greig Laidlaw as a 9-10 option?  Solid, but unspectacular.  James Hook as a utility man?  Wazza has never seemed to rate him that highly at Wales.  Johnny Wilkinson?  Will be involved in the Top 14 knockouts, more or less ruling him out.  Last time around Geech emphasised that he was looking for players finishing the season strongly, and Wazza is expected to pick up that particular baton.  Madigan would tick that box, and his game would surely prosper on the hard Antipodean grounds.  And, yes, he has a bit of flash about him.  Check out that hair for starters.

All that said, it looks at least a season too early for him.  Whatever about wing bolters, the idea of throwing rookie fly-halves into Lions series sounds like a step too far.  It can be tempting to get very excited about such a prodigious talent, but it’s too easy just to remember his best games and forget about the bad ones.  He was brilliant on Friday, but only a week previous struggled to get the backline working (admittedly a workmanlike backline without D’arcy, who appears to be operating very much on Madigan’s wavelength) against Ulster.  He’s best served playing in the North American tour with Ireland this summer.

Testing Times at Leinster

Last week, it felt like the gloom around Leinster rugby was never going to lift.  It’s been a harrowing few weeks for Leinster fans, who have had to watch on as Johnny Sexton has signed for Racing Metro, before most of the first choice backline got wiped out in the Six Nations.  The latest setback was Isa Nacewa announcing that he is set to retire from the game at the end of the year, and return to Auckland.  Suffice to say, Nacewa has been hugely important and frequently outstanding for Leinster, performing two key roles; one as a key player in their Heineken Cup team, and the other as a vital leader of the backline of the often youthful Pro12 team when the big boys are off in Carton House.

With Andrew Conway and Fionn Carr leaving at the end of the season, and Luke Fitzgerald’s injury liable to carry over into next autumn, Leinster are suddenly short of numbers in the back three.  There’s Rob Kearney, Dave Kearney and utility man Fergus McFadden; after that it’s a steep drop off to the likes of Darren Hudson among others, who are still in the academy.  It looks like Leinster will be given licence to sign a high profile replacement for Nacewa, and the guessing games have already begun as to who that will be, but notwithstanding that at least one younger player is going to have to make a step up to Pro12 level regular.

We recently posted outlining a number of younger Leinster players who have been knocking on the door over the last couple of seasons, and must now kick it down.  One was Dave Kearney who is liable to be the biggest beneficiary of Nacewa’s departure.  He’s had a mixed, injury afflicted season, but is set to be a first team regular for at least the rest of the season and must make the most of his opportunity.  He is a good footballer with much to commend him, but suffers a trait seemingly shared by Leinster back three players of late: he doesn’t score many tries.  For all Leinster’s potency in attack, they lack a real chalk-sniffing try-machine in the mould of Simon Zebo.  While Nacewa’s all-round game was marvellous, Leinster need not replace like with like, and might be wiser looking to bring in something they don’t really have; a wide man with out and out finisher’s pace.  It surely couldn’t hurt.

One knock-on effect of the accumulation of departures in the back division is likely to be a pleading with O’Driscoll, and perhaps Cullen, to stick around for one more year, in order to execute a smooth handover to the likes of Eoin O’Malley and Devin Toner as much as anything else.  Indeed, if next season has a look of being marked down in the press as – hate this word – “transitional”, it should at least make for interesting watching, with Ian ‘The Hair’ Madigan taking his bow as The Man at fly-half.  His rich seam of form could not have been better timed, coming just in the wake of the announcement of Sexton’s departure, and he gave another showcase of his outstanding line-running abilities on Saturday night, again making a mockery of Kidney’s determination to omit him from selection for Ireland.

The game was a battle for the top spot in the league, and as a result could have serious consequences, which gave it an intensity far above most Pro12 turkey-shoots at the RDS.  Madigan thrived in the spotlight, making a number of superb breaks, and one outrageous, and almost certainly foolhardy chip from inside his own tryline, which improbably came off as he regathered and immediately offloaded.  He then conjured up the winning try with a trademark step off his right foot to ghost through the defence.  Dude sure has a touch of the maverick genius about him.  He also nailed six from six with the boot.  He looks like he’s having fun out there.

And then there’s the barnet, and what a strange thing it is too.  But Madigan looks set to be the next darling of the fans and media at Leinster, and we expect to see his profile utilised by the marketing men in Donnybrook.  Perhaps this time next year people will be going to their local barber and asking for ‘a Madigan’.

He looks not so much the heir to Johnny Sexton’s throne as a throwback to the days when Felipe Contepomi played fly-half and you were never sure quite what was going to happen next.  It should be worth buying a season ticket for, but whether he can deliver the sort of assured performances on the road which have elevated Sexton to the level of best fly-half in Europe will be the acid test for the man.  Best just to buckle up and brace yourself for a white-knuckle ride.

Caution Swinging In Wind At Carton House

In a move which is going to rock the nation, Declan Kidney has selected Paddy Jackson at 10 ahead of one-time stalwart Ronan O’Gara. The team line-up also features a debut for Ulster’s Luke Marshall, a wing slot for Keith Earls, and a surprising, but not illogical, return to the side for Tom Court, who leapfrogs Munster’s David Kilcoyne.

We’ve reservations about the 10, but it’s a positive, forward-looking selection, and not before time.  Had Kidney been more far-sighted in any series up to now we mightn’t be in such a precarious position, but we are where we are, so we may as well enjoy the rollercoaster ride.

The news will be dominated by ROG’s snub. It’s a call on a par with his now legendary move to bring Tomas O’Leary and Denis Hurley in for Peter Stringer and Shaun Payne, which resulted in Munster winning the Heineken Cup in style. Will this have the same effect?

If making Jamie Heaslip captain and keeping Craig Gilroy in the team gave the impression that Kidney has been emboldened by having entered the last-chance saloon, this decision certainly confirms it. No more Mr. Conservative; when you’ve nothing to lose you may as well gamble with abandon. Two debutants in midfield in a Six Nations game? Last year’s Kidney would have baulked. But now he knows his only chance of an extension is to appear to be tomorrow’s man, and he’s going for it.  All that said, ROG in his scurrent form could no longer be seen as a safe option, and would arguably have been a bigger gamble.  But perception will be that Kidney has ‘gambled’ on Jackson.

Taking the key call at face value, Kidney just couldn’t start ROG in this match. The overwhelming majority of pundits were happy to put forward the ‘blind faith’ argument, that ROG was ROG and would therefore play well by a sort of ROG-O-Magic that rewinds the clocks to 2008. But any reasoned analysis showed that wasn’t likely. The player has been in decline for some time now (and we re-iterate that there is no disgrace in that – there are not many other almost-36 year old skinny-limbed 10s playing test rugby).

There are shades of Tomas O’Leary’s pre-World Cup here. O’Leary only had to play a notch above terrible in the last warm-up match against France to get himself to the World Cup, but couldn’t even do that. Similarly, on Saturday night against Scarlets, ROG just had to turn up and show something – ANYTHING! – to get himself into the 10 shirt, but couldn’t  If O’Gara had picked up a mild cold on Saturday afternoon and sat out the game, he’d be starting this weekend. When he was demoted for Sexton, it was because Sexton played himself onto the team; here ROG has played himself out.

Which brings us to the other element of the decision – the replacement, Paddy Jackson. Jackson hasn’t exactly been kicking the door down to get picked as a test starter. His form has been patchy since November, while Madigan has been resurgent since returning to the more familiar role of fly-half at Leinster. Jackson has presumably got the nod because he has played more at Heineken Cup level (seven starts, including a final, versus Madigan’s five, of which four were at full-back), was in camp in November when Madigan was not, and offers a more structured game than the mercurial Madigan. In short he’s more of a Kidney player.

Whether he’s a better player, or the right man for this game, remains to be seen. Madigan has 70 appearances for Leinster, and has 15 tries to his name in that time. It’s a heck of a premium to put on some time in camp and a handful of H-Cup appearances, none of which Jackson has particularly dominated, compared with Madigan’s form, exceptional passing range, place-kicking, try-scoring and temperament.  One mind-boggling element of the whole thing is that Ulster were not instructed to let Jackson take over place-kicking duties against Zebre last Friday night.  It’s something he’s struggled with this season and he will be asked to step up to a more pressurised environment and convert penalties on Sunday.

It all rather brings to mind the line in Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’, where David Byrne says “And you may ask yourself, How did I get here?”. Everyone with eyes in their head could see ROG was on his way out over the last 12 months – whatever lines we were fed by pundits – but the decision to prepare for this day was continually kicked down the road. It was patently obvious in the summer that Ian Madigan should have been in the touring party, and it was as clear as night follows day that Madigan and Jackson should have got gametime in November.  Take it away, David Byrne: “And you will say to yourself: My God!  What have I done!”

Now a young fly-half is in at the deep end. It’s not the first time this has happened; management delayed promoting Mike Ross right up until the moment all other options were exhausted. If Madigan had been in camp in November, perhaps Kidney would trust him to play the more structured game he wants – but he wasn’t, and it’s Jackson who has got the nod.

Is this the end for ROG?  Probably.  If Jackson plays well, he can cement his place in the 23 when Sexton returns.  Once Kidney drops the hatchet on one of his staples, they rrely make any sort of meaningful return (Stringer played precisely zero minutes in the three H-Cup knockout matches in 2008 after being dropped), and should a new coach arrive next season, it’s hard to see him having a place for a 36 year old 10.

Moving on to the rest of the changes, Earls at wing is probably the least contentious – you could make a strong case for Luke Fitzgerald or Andrew Trimble, but Earls looked good against England, and Scotland fall off tackles – he offers us a chance to impose ourselves on the game by running at the Scots. It’s a marginal call, but a good one.

Luke Marshall’s selection has been long-flagged – Kidney is a fan, fast-tracking him into the November camp like he was from Cork. Niggly injuries have prevented him taking Paddy Wallace’s place in Ulster, but all indications were that he was ahead of the veteran before he broke a finger prior to the Glasgae game in January. Marshall’s pace, hands and distribution are good, and his defence solid, although his kicking game is ordinary. He may be about the only specialist 12 still standing, but we think he’s a good, and forward-looking, choice – the real deal, a player who can have a long career in the shirt and is not just a stop gap.

There appears to be some contention about Tom Court’s selection, but, for us, the only questionable aspect is that he was behind Dave Kilcoyne up to now. Court has been one of Ulster’s best players this season, and their scrum has destroyed all-comers. We thought that if O’Gara played, Court simply had to play to enable a strong scrum to try and generate three-pointers; whereas if Madigan played, the more mobile Kilcoyne was the better bet. But since Jackson more or less splits the difference between the two in terms of style, it makes more sense to judge the two against each other, and given the value placed on scrummaging ability, Court is simply better than Kilcoyne right now.

IRELAND (Possible): Kearney; Gilroy, O’Driscoll, Marshall, Earls; Jackson, Murray; Court, Best, Ross, O’Callaghan, Ryan, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Heaslip (capt). Replacements: Kilcoyne, Cronin, Fitzpatrick, Toner, Henderson, Reddan, O’Gara, Fitzgerald

P.S. we posted about Ulster’s incredible recent crop of youngsters in reference to the opening Aviva game a while back – there will be four full caps among the Ulstermen come Saturday, and only NWJMB Iain Henderson will be without a Test start.

Last Throw of the Dice

Declan Kidney’s decision to overlook Ian Madigan for the Irish training squad flies in the face of logic, and suggests the coach is hunkering down with his tinfoil hat on.

Last week we blogged our opinions on the matter of who should start for Ireland, so let’s not go over that ground again.  For now, let’s assume ROG is starting and was always going to, and have nothing more to say on the matter.  Except to note that he played rubbish on Saturday night and that the theory that he is just a touch ring-rusty is increasingly difficult to support.  But he’s starting, so that’s that.

The choice for ROG’s back up was between Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley.  All three featured for their provinces this weekend, in what we hoped would be a beauty parade for at least a place in the matchday squad.  But if it was a beauty parade, the ugly sisters have walked away with the sashes and flowers.

Ian Keatley played full-back for Munster, where it was required that ROG get some match-time at 10.  Once that was the case, his chances were always somewhere between slim and none.

Paddy Jackson played his first game for Ulster since returning from injury.  His form has been scratchy for a couple of months now, and Ruan Pienaar has taken over kicking duties, following Jackson’s struggles with placed ball.  He piloted Ulster to a comfortable win over a por Zebre side, in which they performed reasonably.  Jackson had an ordinary enough game, and Pienaar took the place-kicks.

At Leinster, Madigan had a very productive outing.  He kicked four from five conversions, in keeping with his kicking stats over the course of the season.  He ran the Leinster backline efficiently, made one lovely line break and – most importantly – curbed his enthusiams to try and do too much on his own.  It bears mention that Treviso were hopeless, but he was among the best players on show.  He did everything that could have been asked of him.

Deccie’s seletion effectively says ‘I don’t care how the lads played this weekend, I’m picking this team anyway’.  By omitting his most in-form 10 he is rendering form an irrelevance, and confirming a long-held hunch in most people’s minds that he just doesn’t like Ian Madigan as a player.  It’s also a call that gives his critics – such as they are in a supine national media – such easy ammunition it’s almost unbelievable.  They say in politics, you should never do anything to confirm a stereotype people have of you – well, Deccie has done exactly that here.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Deccie to pick Madigan in the training squad, let him run around a bit, and go ahead and pick Rog and PJ and justify it by saying he judged them the best options given form in training. He might have never intended to pick Madigan, but optics mean a lot. Kidney has opted for the other course, of sticking his fingers in his ears and doing what he wants and not caring what anyone thinks.

The match in question – away to Scotland – is looking increasingly like the stuff of potential nightmares.  Losing is far from inconceivable, and this decision could be fatal as far as Kidney’s career as head coach goes.  The ship is going down, but the captain will be stubborn to the last.