Strong, combative McFadden may be the answer to Kidney's conundrum
In the absence of redwoods, oaks will often do. Fergus McFadden thinks and plays like the Californian giant, with the dimensions of its smaller Irish cousin. Still, there is little concern over his ability to step in for Gordon D’Arcy at inside centre. For Kidney, this is a week of patching up. One oak for another? Maybe, maybe not.
But McFadden will make a helluva claim. There is part of his game made for the rough and tumble of centre field and although Leinster and Ireland have been playing him on the wing this season, the natural grunt under his hood and the skill set that pressurised the monolith D’Arcy last season may tempt Declan Kidney tomorrow.
The Ireland coach has a myriad of options and permutations. That Brian O’Driscoll will not wish to move from 13 makes his job less complex but possibly more difficult, with Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls and even Luke Marshall looking at particular combinations that will include their names.
What McFadden brings is a snug fit, some experience in the position and probably less disruption.
“We all know his strengths. He’s strong, a very combative kind of player,” said Leinster assistant coach Richie Murphy.
“He’s obviously got a strong kicking game, he’s a good place-kicker. Defensively, he hits hard as anyone else. He’s been playing a fair bit for us on the wing. That’s not because we don’t like him in the centre.
“It’s because with the make-up of the backline we’ve had since pre-season, with guys coming in and out, he hasn’t really had a chance to play at 12. There’s no reason why he can’t do it. For a man who isn’t actually that big. His commitment to the team is massive.
“He’s big enough to play first centre in the modern game. He’s a different type of centre. He is similar to Gordon . . . if he’s big enough.”
McFadden’s drawback is that Leinster have Andrew Goodman and Eoin O’Malley coming back as well as O’Driscoll and D’Arcy. So often Joe Schmidt’s imperative depends on the make-up of the team Leinster are facing and what he sees as the best personnel within the group of players he has that week.
“Ferg would be considered there,” insisted Murphy for an inside centre job with Leinster. “He played quite a lot of rugby there last season and had Gordon under pressure a number of times.”
The suspicion is he would say that, wouldn’t he, and perhaps O’Malley too. But prior to his ill fortune with injury, the returning outside centre O’Malley was a player who has experienced the 26-year-old playing inside him. From where he stands the omens are good for “Ferg”, a centre at heart and far from soft.
“I think it’s pretty obvious when you watch Ferg play and you play with him that he’s a very physical player, he puts in a lot of very good tackles,” said O’Malley.
“He’s pretty bang on defensively and when he’s got the ball in his hand he’s got a lot of pace and he’s nice to run off, he’s strong, he beats guys and he’s very good to play off.”
They’re the sort of honeyed words McFadden would wish to hear and with Ronan O’Gara’s form generating unsteadiness, Kidney may look to a player who can generate immediacy and certainty in the position beside outhalf and who’s unafraid to hit hard and frequently. The physical similarities with D’Arcy are striking and few question his ability.
“If he gets put in (for Ireland),” said O’Malley, “he’ll be very much ready for it.”