Centre stage is set and now it’s time for Madigan to deliver a performance
Leinster player can give Lions coach Warren Gatland a timely reminder of his qualities
After Jonny Sexton pointedly retook his position at Zebre six days ago, this week’s cautious rhetoric from Joe Schmidt about his two Leinster pivots describes him as a coach unafraid to consider twisting convention and looking at options. Cobwebbed or threadbare views from Schmidt are as rare as a stylish mullet.
While there seemed little doubt the marquee name would start today at outhalf, the breathless consideration of how Schmidt would use Ian Madigan against Biarritz probably told us as much about Madigan’s rise and rise as the logical decision to pick Sexton.
Every one has a view on the two players and while Schmidt knew Gordon D’Arcy was in trouble with his calf from the moment his Irish centre disconsolately walked away from the training pitch in UCD on Tuesday afternoon, Madigan’s worth as a quality footballer has shown again.
Schmidt said on Thursday that both players would play some part and that has unravelled not quite as we had seen it. As class an act as Sexton is, the coach sees clear differences in the way the two play and even at inside centre this afternoon some of the edges that make Madigan a compelling outhalf will be employed at one remove. Madigan also brings the added value of Biarritz being less acquainted with him.
An unknown academy player when Schmidt arrived in Dublin, Madigan has now, ironically, arrived at Leinster when Schmidt may be departing. Clearly though, not too far. Today’s selection is far from a coronation of the 24-year-old but his start for injured D’Arcy shows how close he has come to the immediate thoughts of the coach. Having Madigan on the pitch has become an asset.
“Ian Madigan is better at running the game now. He has an awareness,” said the Leinster coach. “One of best things I think that happened to him is he was thrown back to fullback, where he got more appreciation of the wider game, of the decisions of 10 and the consequences that has for those further away from ball. All of those things meld together to develop him into a player that is going really well for us.”
As an outhalf during Sexton’s forced absence, Madigan’s bread and butter development has shone through. Statistics can blur as much as illuminate and while Sexton will kick today, Madigan’s boot numbers add up to between good and impressive, while his defence also stacks up. That aspect of his game will be heavily road-tested today against Damien Traille; 33, 6ft 4ins and 16st to Madigan’s 5ft 11ins, the French veteran maybe almost10 years older but no less a challenge.
“His kicking game has really improved, the consistency, the length of his kicking,” adds Schmidt. “His goal kicking has obviously gotten better. He’s 20 from 20 in the PRO12. That for us is a massive part of taking opportunity, building scoreboard pressure. If you have got a team that is hard to break down you want a guy who can kick those goals, Ian has really proven that.
“Defensively against Munster he made 15 out of 16 tackles, some smashing tackles, one on Dave Kilcoyne stopped him dead, then another on Peter O’Mahony. That element of his game has really improved. He’s defensively more aware and decisive and he has never really lacked for courage. Those elements make him a good defender.”
The 12 shirt on his back today is another building phase in the Madigan project. While Sexton will run the kicking game and more, Madigan’s traditional take on games has been not to let formalities stymie what he’s good at and it hasn’t harmed his upwards trajectory.
As Schmidt was pressed this week on the skill set that he can offer that is different from Sexton, his ability to bring himself into the game as much as other players was high on the list. Madigan’s occasionally brash self belief has become a trademark offensive weapon, not a hindrance or a liability.
Style of play
As a consequence he scores more tries and although Sexton’s presence and decision making shapes matches and occasionally wins them as he did against Northampton in the Heineken Cup final, Madigan’s style of play changes tempo and emphasis, while his natural predatory instincts can also inject urgency.
“Ian has probably got a bit more of a change up,” says Schmidt. “You probably don’t see Jonny Sexton score as many tries as Ian does because Ian plays a little bit flatter to the line. He really takes the line on. He takes the line on with his pass delivery, in his change up and in his step and go.
“That sort of change up when players are tired is really an effective thing or if you’ve taken them through phases early in game and you start chasing your tail a bit he’s always a running threat.That’s a little different from Jonny, who tends to play two players around him and bring them into game more. Ian will certainly bring them into game but as soon as you are not looking at him he’ll bring himself into the game probably a bit more often that Jonny does.
“I think they are both super defenders. This time last year in Bordeaux when Jamie Cudmore (Clermont secondrow) got ball close to line, it was Jonny who flew off and stopped him pretty much dead. Tens often get a reputation as not being the best of defenders. They are both very, very good defensively.”
A bolter for the Lions squad that will be named on Tuesday, this is a last opportunity for Madigan to demonstrate to Warren Gatland that his young, eager ambition and eye-catching improvement has not been an aberration.
Players need big games to make personal statements and today’s semi-final is just the stage Madigan revels in.