Ian Madigan ready to lay down marker as Leinster face Castres in Champions Cup
Versatile 24-year-old wants number 10 jersey but is happy to play anywhere in backline
Ian Madigan’s eye for a gap echoes that of his boyhood hero, Carlos Spencer, whom he describes as ‘a magician’. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Being able to play well in a number of positions can be a double-edged sword. Much as Ian Madigan would like to be a specialist outhalf, his ability to play at inside centre and fullback means that whenever Leinster have an injury crisis, he doesn’t play in his favourite position. And what Leinster have now is an injury crisis.
Is Madigan a victim of his versatility, or a beneficiary? Like most in his position, so to speak, it can be both. It didn’t do Isa Nacewa too much harm, and Madigan admired the way Nacewa consistently fronted up, even through injuries.
“I really idolised Isa and I remember him saying that as long as he was in the team as one of the seven backs he was happy, and I took a lot from that. Once I am picked, I feel I can bring something to the team.”
Playing centre and fullback has given him a better understanding of what players in those positions want from him when he plays at outhalf, and outhalf remains his preferred position. It’s where he cut his teeth and lets him be closer to the action.
“I do enjoy being the centre of attention. I’ve always been that way, and I enjoy the mini roles. I enjoy doing the restarts, kicking to touch, and calling the calls, and I like knowing the game plan. When I’m playing centre or fullback, it is a weight off your shoulders, but I’d rather have the weight.”
It comes as little surprise that his second favourite position is inside centre. He likes the way the Leinster 12 position has evolved into more of a playmaking role, although an inside centre is required to hit many more rucks, which makes greater demands on him physically.
That he is equally adept at providing an impact off the bench is a further tribute to his mental strength and professionalism, as well as his diverse talents. “There is a part of coming off the bench which I do enjoy. When other players are tiring, I’m coming on really fresh and you get to exploit that. But as a professional player you want to be the number one, and you want to be playing.”
Such considered and frank responses are typical of this intelligent, articulate and good-humoured 25-year-old. Repeated requests for interviews had previously been rebuffed by the Leinster management, perhaps because Madigan is innately honest. He has also become something of a cause célèbre, whose failure to nail down the Leinster number 10 jersey is as much a disappointment to himself as his many fans.
After Johnny Sexton moved to Racing Metro, Madigan readily admits last season was a rollercoaster, punctuated by the highs of starting at 10 in the wins over Munster and Northampton, as well as cameos off the bench in the Pro12 final and for Ireland in the Six Nations’ finale in Paris. And then there were the lows, notably the week after the Munster win when he was dropped the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Toulon.
The news that Sexton is coming home on a four-year deal, does not look good for Jimmy Gopperth’s future at Leinster, given he is in the second year of a two-year contract, but not so wondrous for Madigan’s long-term prospects as the Leinster outhalf either, even if he is in the second year of a three-year deal.
“It’s no secret that I want to be the Leinster number 10, but Johnny coming back is good for the club. There’s no doubt about that. He’s one of the best players in Europe, if not the best player in Europe. There’s no reason why we can’t play alongside each other and if I was to play in that role of the playmaking 12, I’d be happy out. But there are no guarantees in a club like Leinster. I may not even get that opportunity to play at 12.
“It would be disappointing to end up in 2016 back where I was in 2012, and the reality of the situation is I wouldn’t stay in Leinster if that was the case. You have to be realistic. I am perfectly happy here. I love playing here and I want to stay here for my entire career, but you have to view it with an open mind, that if you’re going backwards in a club, you’re going to have to leave. That’s sport. But I’m happy he’s coming back. Aside from the fact that he’s a brilliant player, he’s a good friend and he’s a great guy to have in the environment and he’ll drive things forward.”
Madigan is the grandson of former IRFU president Paddy Madigan and his father Michael played as a flanker (“he was a tough nut”) at Old Belvedere, where the young Ian played mini rugby.
His dad and mum, Maria, reared David (a scrumhalf who won a Schools Senior Cup medal with Blackrock in 2004), Ian and Louise in Foxrock, and Madigan credits David for honing his passing skills.
Gaelic football had been his first love with Kilmacud Crokes, before he caught the rugby bug when he went to Blackrock, particularly when he was outhalf on their Junior Cup-winning team.
Missed a penalty
“There are times when I think I really would love to have got that bloody kick,” Madigan says with a chuckle.
“That was a big disappointment for me but it definitely made me stronger. Massively so, and I haven’t missed many clutch kicks since. Now I put a lot of that down to Richie Murphy, who’s a brilliant kicking coach, and Enda McNulty, who’s a brilliant mental coach.”
Indeed, in the wake of that miss, Madigan began reading golf books by the sports psychologist Bob Rotella, so that he had a set breathing routine and mental preparation to go with his kicking technique. “Back when I was 17 I didn’t have that. I was pretty much praying it went through the posts.”
He went on through the Leinster system, from sub academy through full academy and development contract. “It was gradual progress for me. It wasn’t as if I was a Luke Fitzgerald or Rob Kearney. There would have been doubts about me along the way. I have had so many games when I would have gone ‘if I play poorly here I could drop out of the system’. But the mental strength I got off that was massive.”
As well as the footballing and passing skills, there’s also the footwork and running exploits. Most of his haul of 23 tries in 114 games (69 starts) have been from outhalf, and his eye for a gap echoes that of his boyhood hero Carlos Spencer (“He was a magician”).
“I put a lot of it down to my footwork but I also put quite a lot of it down to the shape outside me. I find when I do get my clean breaks, it’s when we’ve good shape outside me.”
Madigan does have a certain strut about him, which he attributes to playing a lot of tennis (he was a fan of Agassi) in his formative years.
“I would have big self-belief. There would have been times in my career when I thought I was better than I was, and that would have held me back at times,” although he always worked on flaws, and he also works on his mental strength with McNulty.
“I have a process when I make mistakes and that would be to stand tall, and portray to the other guys on the team that they can still rely on me. I think that’s very important.”
Winning tomorrow in Castres would be a significant statement. “They’re a side who will look at this game as a way of kick-starting their season, and we can’t have that happen to us again.
“Glasgow kick-started their season against us, Munster kick-started their season against us and we cannot be kick-starters. We’ve got to be able to front up.”
He says Leinster ought to gain confidence from eventually overcoming a Wasps side that made over 180 tackles.
“There’s really good confidence in the game plan that if we execute on it, we can beat them. It’s one of those games that it’s up to us to perform. We’ve just got to go out and look after our own shop.”