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Ian Madigan on Johnny Sexton: ‘He would never withhold information like other halfbacks might’

Former Ireland outhalf offers interesting insight into Jack Crowley’s role at this Rugby World Cup

Ian Madigan, once of Leinster, Bordeaux, Bristol Bears and Ulster, now of Dataships, where he runs the partnerships and events wing of the tech software company, swapping the lifestyle of the professional rugby player with all its trappings to become a nine-to-five joe with the possibility of golf on the weekends.

The 34-year-old turned down several opportunities to continue his rugby career in France on the basis that he couldn’t quite recapture former speed and agility following a knee injury last October. He made the decision to retire in late summer.

Madigan made 147 appearances for Leinster during which time he won two Champions Cups, two Pro 12 titles and a European Challenge Cup before moving to England, France and finally back to Belfast where he has bought a house.

An outstanding professional and an even better person, he won 31 caps for Ireland including playing a pivotal role in the 2015 Rugby World Cup when he came on for Johnny Sexton after 26 minutes of the pool game against France and steered the team to a monumental win.


His tears at the final whistle is one of the iconic rugby photographs from that era. It also got him the nickname Gazza according to Rob Kearney.

The win over France remains a treasured memory. “There were a lot of question marks about whether someone could cover for Johnny and proving that to myself was definitely a highlight.” He also singled out the Challenge Cup win where he got a run of matches at inside centre, sandwiched between Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll in a Joe Schmidt coached team.

There is arguably no one better placed to shine a light on what it is like to understudy Sexton for club and country. Madigan, speaking in his capacity as an ambassador for Ladbrokes, said: “Johnny is very particular.

“He has his own way in setting up the team from where he wants the nine to pass him the ball, to where he wants the forwards to stand off him, where he wants to receive passes, what he wants the centres doing. He is very, very particular and I would have learned a huge amount from him.

“How you set up your team during the week is a big indicator of how the team will perform at the weekend. The more you put into that the more that you will get out of the guys that you are playing with on a Saturday night.

“What was difficult is that I wouldn’t set up the same way as Johnny. If he’s getting 10 reps and you are coming in getting two, three or four reps and you are trying to make small tweaks to what he is doing, it’s hard to get eight guys in the forward pack on to one page. You are trying to get them to be slightly different. That would have been a challenge.

“Johnny always had a very close relationship with Joe [Schmidt] and would have had a big say on strategy. There would have been times when it would have been difficult, [in that] you didn’t necessarily feel that you were part of that.

“But at the same time, he was a great guy to work with, he would never withhold information. You might hear of other halfbacks doing that, because they are so competitive and won’t help each other out.

“That certainly wasn’t the case with Johnny. He helped me with elements of my game: tackle selection, goal kicking, kicking out of hand. Off the back of working with Johnny for the first half of my career, it would have spurred me on to do the same with younger outhalves that I worked with.”

Madigan offers an interesting insight into Jack Crowley’s role if he continues to understudy the Irish captain. “Jack must be himself, it’s how he plays that has got him to this position. He must replicate what Johnny is doing for the good of the team but then he needs to balance that with what he can do, and Johnny can’t.

“He’s younger, he’s faster, he’s got better footwork. He must know when to use his strengths, but then when you are running shapes off nine and off 10, using the centres, he must pick up similar positions to Johnny. He’s coming in for about a fifth of the reps and the whole system still must run smoothly while he is there.”

Ireland’s next match is against Scotland and Madigan is an admirer of Finn Russell, especially “when pressure comes off, he is particularly dangerous. Because he has such a good skill set, he can execute the low percentage options really well.” He added that Sexton was a better strategist but that Russell “on front-foot ball is the best outhalf in the world, a joy to watch.”

If Ireland do progress to the quarterfinals, their most likely opponents are New Zealand, where they will come up against Schmidt, the best coach under whom Madigan played. “His menu of plays was so good, so far ahead of its time that we knew we would score two tries off them, minimum, and inevitably we did. It filled the team with massive confidence.

“He laid very good foundations both with Leinster and Ireland,” from which others profited. Madigan continued: “He’s going to be licking his lips playing this Irish team with the All Blacks as underdogs. He will [run] a fine tooth comb over the Irish team. He is the best coach in the world at finding a kink in the armour and then going away and manufacturing a three-, four-, five-phase play to exposé that kink.”

Madigan explained that Schmidt’s ability to watch play live and dissect an opportunity or a weakness and communicate it in simple terms was unparalleled in his experience. “His ability to give live feedback and trust his instincts and be black and white, that is a big strength of Joe’s. He’d always be looking to simplify things.

“He was very strong at figuring out players’ strengths and working with a player on those, or even building set piece plays to play to those strengths. Brian O’Driscoll is someone who benefited. Joe realised that the way that this guy can move latterly is as good as I have seen. Let’s manufacture plays around that and with Johnny’s [Sexton] good passing game, before you know it you are shredding teams.”

Madigan believes that this group of Irish players have the wherewithal to achieve something unprecedented in the tournament. “The team can change the game plan in a game to get the 15 players on the same page, to make those tweaks and find a way to win. That is what impresses me most about this team.

“We are not the strongest team, probably not in the top three from a physical point of view but I can categorically say that we are the smartest team in this World Cup.”

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer