Focus turns to performances of Zebo and Madigan

Tommy Bowe’s misfortune could open the door for another Irish Lion

Ireland outhalf Ian Madigan during training  at the  CES performance Centre in Houston, Texas ahead of the game against USA. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ireland outhalf Ian Madigan during training at the CES performance Centre in Houston, Texas ahead of the game against USA. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Tommy Bowe’s tour-ending broken hand has increased the importance of certain individual performances for Ireland against the USA tonight, namely Simon Zebo and Ian Madigan.

Both players were long-listed to tour Australia with the British and Irish Lions, with Zebo considered unlucky to lose out to New Zealand’s Scottish international winger Sean Maitland.

A decision on Bowe’s replacement will be confirmed tomorrow, which is further indication that an Irish player will be called up as the Lions management don’t want to disrupt Ireland’s preparation just hours before the 1.45am kick-off (live on TG4) in Houston.

In the meantime, debate about whether Warren Gatland will call up a winger or more versatile player can begin.

There were strong indications before Gatland announced his squad that Madigan’s sensational form for Leinster, particularly his improved place-kicking, and ability to play across the backline, would see him become the traditional bolter who wasn’t an established international (see Will Greenwood in 1997 or even Leigh Halfpenny in 2009).

Last month the 24-year-old won the Rabo Pro 12 Golden Boot.

“The way I have got to high percentages this year is through really hard work,” said Madigan yesterday. “Richie Murphy (Leinster’s kicking coach) has built a technique that if I miss a kick I know exactly what I have done wrong and it is easily correctable.

“For example, if I miss a kick left I know it is one of two things: that I didn’t get through the ball or I didn’t stay tall. If I miss a kick right, it generally means my left foot was too close to the ball.

“So, when you’re in a match situation and you miss a kick, it’s a real confidence thing. If you know what you’ve done wrong and you can correct it for the next kick, I think it’s a massive string to add to your bow.

“Another thing is I’ve probably taken a few yards off the length of my kicks. So, for example a kick that was 30 yards, I used to kick it like it was a 50-yard kick. Whereas now, I don’t quite kick the ball as hard. I can still do the long distance ones if needs be but I’ll change my technique.

“Two years ago I would have had pretty much one technique for all kicks – now I have three techniques: I’ve a short technique for short kicks, a middle-range technique and then if needs be, for 50 or 55 metres, I can go to a long-range technique.”

The Irish squad already lost captain Rory Best to the Lions before departure, ensuring that Peter O’Mahony leads out the least capped (119) starting XV since Ireland lost 16-0 to England at Twickenham in 1962.

That was the day Willie John McBride and Ray McLoughlin made their debuts. Tonight it is Stuart Olding and Robbie Henshaw with Iain Henderson, Dave Kilcoyne and Madigan making their first starts.

It is also a second coming of sorts for Devin Toner and Isaac Boss, after that pair finished the season strongly for Leinster.

Toner’s lineout, Mike Ross at scrummaging and Boss’s kicking from scrumhalf will be crucial, but Madigan is also keenly aware that he must tweak his game for the Test match arena.

“The thing with Test match rugby is that your mistakes are going to be magnified,” Madigan continued. “I do have a slight tendency to pull the trigger a little early at times. I wouldn’t quite have the patience that Jonny (Sexton) has.

“Jonny could wait until there’s a definite four-on-two for example and then he’ll pull the trigger and he’ll be gone, whereas I might have only waited for one or two phases and it might be a four-on-three or a five-on-four. I’ll try and make a play then. He’s just backed me that the pack we have going out this week, we can be patient. They will grind it out for us. If I’m patient behind that and if I do pull the trigger, it will hopefully have good effect and we’ll get a clean line break.”

Incoming Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, who arrived in Houston last night, has been instrumental in Madigan’s progression this year, selecting him at fullback in Rob Kearney’s absence, outhalf for Sexton and inside centre when Gordon D’Arcy was injured.

“Joe wouldn’t think that I’m overly patient. He’s said it to me before that sometimes I want things to have happened yesterday. There’s other stuff I would be patient with. I know that for improving your game, it’s not going to happen in one session or two sessions. I’d like to think I’m pretty diligent with that.”

Things are certainly happening now. By tomorrow morning, either Zebo or Madigan may well be on a trip of lifetime.

Then again, Scotland winger Tim Visser is another contender despite today’s 27-17 defeat to Samoa in Durban.

USA v Ireland, BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston. Kick-off 1.45am (Irish time) - Live TG4 (deferred view Sunday, 12.05pm). (* denotes uncapped player)

Ireland: Robbie Henshaw (Connacht)*; F McFadden (Leinster, 17 caps), Darren Cave (Ulster, 3 caps), Stuart Olding (Ulster)*, Simon Zebo (Munster, 5 caps); Ian Madigan (Leinster, 2 caps), Isaac Boss (Leinster, 15 caps); Dave Kilcoyne (Munster, 6 caps), Richardt Strauss (Leinster, 2 caps), Mike Ross (Leinster, 29 caps); Mike McCarthy (Leinster, 10 caps), Devin Toner (Leinster, 5 caps); Iain Henderson (Ulster, 5 caps), Chris Henry (Ulster, 6 caps), Peter O’Mahony (capt, Munster, 14 caps). Replacements: Mike Sherry (Munster)*, Jamie Hagan (London Irish)*, Tom Court (Ulster, 30 caps), Dan Tuohy (Ulster, 5 caps), Tommy O’Donnell (Munster)*, Paul Marshall (Ulster, 1 cap), Paddy Jackson (Ulster, 3 caps), Felix Jones (Munster, 3 caps).

USA: C Wyles; L Hume, S Kelly, A Suniula, T Ngwenya; T L’Estrange, M Petri; S Pittman, C Biller, E Fry; B Doyle, L Stanfill; S Manoa, S Lavalla, T Clever (capt). Replacements: Z Fenoglio, N Wallace, P Thiel, P Dahl, J Quill, R Shaw, J Paterson, A Siddall.