Interview: Ian Madigan on a tough first season in France and future plans
Ireland international outlines his time with Bordeaux and how his international ambitions will guide any future decisions
Ian Madigan: “If it did happen that they decided to release me and an opportunity to come back to Ireland came up, it definitely would be something that would excite me.” Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Ian Madigan was in Ireland this week in his role as an ambassador for Electric Ireland, sponsors of the Ireland under-20 side. Here is the full transcript of the interview he gave to Irish journalists, including Gavin Cummiskey of The Irish Times.
Have you seen much of this year’s under-20s?
“I coached Gavin Mullin, Brendan’s son, in school at Junior Cup level and Tommy O’Brien – two really talented guys. Both quite similar players actually – strong, fast, good feet, very good passers – but I haven’t been able to watch the games because they haven’t been televised in France. Hopefully, I’ll get to see the one on Friday.”
It must be tough watching Ireland this season?
“Yeah, it was tough straight away. I think it was the first game I hadn’t been involved in in maybe two or three seasons, we happened to beat the All Blacks, so it was tough not being involved for that one.
“I was also delighted for the guys. I know the work that was put in to get across the line in that game and the other great wins in autumn. I’d still be keeping in contact with the players and wishing them well before games. It was great for me, as well as everyone else, to see the national team doing as well as possible.”
Has Joe been on?
“Yeah, Joe has kept in contact. Obviously from his time involved in Clermont, he knows how things work in France very well and he gave me some great advice before I went over. I had Joe as a coach in Leinster for three or four years and again with Ireland for three or four years.
“First and foremost he’s a coach, but he’s also been a great mentor to me. He’s given me great advice and as much as he would’ve rather I stayed in Ireland, he still wanted things to go well for me on a personal level and he’s given me some good advice along the way. He’s kept in contact with me and he’s still giving me advice on my game and what he thinks I can improve on, keeping me in the loop on what they’re looking for with the national outhalves.”
Sum up your time in France?
“It’s been mixed. I got off to a good start. I made a big investment before I went over by learning the language. I went over well before preseason started to get acclimatised with the French, got set up in an apartment and got to meet some of the guys outside the team environment. I had spoken to a lot of them before I signed with the club to suss out what I was potentially getting myself involved in. That investment stood me very well.
“On a rugby front I got off to a good start, starting six of the first seven games and of those games I started, we won five of the first six so I got off to a dream start. Our first game was against Racing and [Dan] Carter. It was a big game for the club, playing against the current [Top 14] holders, so on that side it was a dream start.
“As the season went on I picked up a bit of a groin injury which was partly down to the change in environment. I went from knowing how Leinster operates, their strength and conditioning coaches, to moving to a different environment in Bordeaux and having a different set-up with both their strength and their conditioning; the length of time on the pitch and I also had the added stress of being a regular starter.
“In France a lot of the games come down to goal-kicking so I was practicing my goal kicking more and more. Between doing the extra time with pitch sessions with the team – it is more regulated in Ireland so we might be only on the field for an hour, an hour and 10 minutes, whereas in France you can be closer to an hour and a half, two hours. So with that added in and the extra kicking I was doing, and also trying to maintain the strength work I was doing previously in Leinster and Ireland on top of that, I picked up a bit of a groin problem.
“It was nothing too serious and I was able to manage it as I was going along but it would affect me sometimes if I stepped hard off one foot or if I slipped, I would get a bit of pain off it, or if I didn’t connect perfectly with a kick I would get a bit of pain off it.
“That fed into other parts of my game – because I was getting pain my confidence was getting affected slightly. I was still able to train and play in the games, but my performances were waning slightly.
“I was probably feeling a bit of pressure as I had just come into the club for seven or eight games – I’d had a good injury profile previously – so I was keeping it to myself.
“Off the back of that it culminated in a poor personal performance from me against Castres away. Off the back of that I said to the medical team, ‘Look, I’m struggling here with my groin’.
“So I got a scan on it then and I had a split in my tendon. They call it a fissure in France, so they advised me to take a month out. It was pretty bad timing on a personal note, it was leading into the [November] internationals and four very important games for the club and it was at a time when Simon Hickey had just come back in. So I had to sit back and we won the next four games, which was great for the team, but put me on the back foot on a personal note.
“Since I have come back from that injury the only games I have started are the European games and it has been two starts back-to-back and then dropped back to the bench for what was a really important game against Clermont. Then we had a two-week break and then back in for Castres last week when I was subbing again.
“The last Top 14 game I started was October 30th, so since then it has been stop, start. If you talk to any professionals out there, you’ll find they are at their best when they get a run of games. It’s very hard if you are playing only one game in every three, or once a month, to get any flow, to build relationships with the other players around you. That’s been a challenge for me because I don’t know those players as well so I need to be playing week-on-week to be able to build that relationship and for them to know my game better, and for me to know what suits them.”
Can you clarify reports (about leaving Bordeaux)?
“Yeah, so two weeks ago I had a meeting with the [Bordeaux-Bégles] president (Laurent Marti) which I made clear at the start of the meeting, when I was talking to him, that I want to make things work, that I want to stay in Bordeaux but there were certain things I wasn’t happy with in the club.
“And off the back of that, he was clear with me that he knew there were issues I was dealing with. He’d obviously seen I wasn’t being selected for the Top 14 games. And he decided he’d take some time to think about the second year of my contract.
“It was very much a private conversation and I do believe that things will still work out for me in Bordeaux. It wasn’t a case of me going in there and saying I was going to leave or handing in my resignation. It certainly wasn’t that.”
Do you reckon you’ll be there next season?
“As things stand, I’m on a two-year contract and I still really want things to work there. It’s a really good team, I’m enjoying the lifestyle over there. Obviously I’ve had some challenges over the last few months that I want to work through and get through to the other end. The easy thing for me would be to sit back and cruise through things.
“But I ultimately felt there has been a loss of confidence from the coach in me personally and I felt I had to act upon it. There were certain things I was dealing with. We were in a great position in the Champions Cup to qualify, we’d beaten Ulster in Chaban, we got a bonus point in Clermont and we’d beaten Exeter in Exeter, so we were sitting on nine points after three games and we’d Exeter at home in the following game. We decided to rotate our team and ultimately didn’t get a point in that game. We ended up on 13 points and Toulon qualified on 15 points.
“On a personal note, that was very disappointing for me.
AAC (Adam Ashley-Cooper, who is not having his Bordeaux contract extended)?
“One of the big reasons that I joined the club, was Adam Ashley-Cooper was there. I talked to him at length before I joined and he ended up advising me, improving my game while I’ve been there. It’s very disappointing to hear that he hasn’t been extended by the club and it makes me question where their ambition is on that front.”
Will they replace him with a similar type of world-class player?
“You would like to think they will bring in someone who has got real experience who can input their intellectual ability. That is what you want and what you need in the Top14. If you look at the teams that have gone well, look at the likes of Pau, who have won their last six games, look at the intellectual guys they have, like Colin Slade and Conrad Smith. They are a team who have really grown as the season has gone on.
“The Top 14 is a long season – 26 regular season games – the key is that you improve as the season goes on and if you do that then you are going to be in the mix at the end of it. It is not about shooting out of the blocks, it is about improving week-on-week. You can see the teams who have done that are building something special.”
Why are they letting Ashley-Cooper go after one year?
“It was one I didn’t really understand. He is vital for our back play. He is always inputting ideas and strategy and he’s our top try scorer. Any time I have played with him, he is the kind of guy who makes you feel very good about yourself and the kind of guy you want to play alongside. And that is felt throughout the club by both the international and French players. They really enjoy playing alongside him, he is a vital part of the club so when it was learned that he wasn’t being kept on it was a blow to everyone.”
He’ll be a good signing for someone?
“Yeah, they would be lucky to get him.”
“Yeah, a move back to Ireland would certainly excite me. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. Playing for Ireland is still the ultimate for me. The reason I made the move was to improve as a rugby player, the reason why I had that conversation with our president is because I didn’t feel that I had the confidence of the coaches or felt valued as a player. I was in there to get to the bottom of it and try to improve that situation.
“If I felt that that was going to be a long-term thing, then, you know, did he really want to keep me at the club or will he give me another opportunity to join another club and play rugby, because ultimately that’s what I want to be doing.
“If it did happen that they decided to release me and an opportunity to come back to Ireland came up, it definitely would be something that would excite me.
“But these conversations haven’t been had because I am under contract at the moment, so nothing has been done on that front. It has just been strictly speculation over the last few days.”
Tommy Bowe’s deal to play for a Pro 12 club (when joining Ospreys) meant he played four times in Ireland and the then Ireland coach Declan Kidney was okay with that. Does that appeal to you rather than a move to England or France?
“Yeah, I would agree with that to an extent. I think, for me having Ulster in our European group definitely kept me more in the loop than if for example we were playing in the Challenge Cup and I wasn’t playing against any Irish side at all. So yeah, I definitely think that would work to your advantage.”
Have there been any conversations with Raphael Ibanez in terms of ‘I want to be selected’, that kind of thing?
“Yeah, I’ve had a few conversations with Raph about it. He’s given me a few things to work on and we’re working though that at the moment.
“I’ve a new coach who has got a different strategy to what I was used to and it suits certain players, doesn’t suit certain players. For me, it’s about adapting my game now to suit this new coach I have, try and work on that relationship.
“In the first year when Matt O’Connor came in, I struggled to grasp what his game plan was and what he ultimately wanted from me as a player. But from working closely with Matt in year two I started to see the fruits of it and ultimately built a good relationship there.
“It’s not easy, you know, you can be doing something that would really please one coach that ultimately wouldn’t satisfy another coach so for me it’s about finding out what gets his juices flowing and executing that for him.”
Is it like NFL now in rugby, each team has a system, and the system at a new club has to suit you?
“I definitely think that and I did look long and hard at Bordeaux before I signed for them and thought their style of play really suits me. They’re playing 1-3-3-1, which is how the French national team is playing, it gives you an opportunity to play with real width. There’s not a massive amount of kicking in play involved in it. That was something I definitely did look at. Whereas you look at other clubs that are more dependent on a kicking game or 10-man rugby and I’d go, ‘That’s not going to suit my skill set as much,’ so you’d be less likely to join a club like that.”
Is the Japan tour a goal and, if so, do you need to get your minutes up?
“Definitely. With the Lions tour this year you’d expect that there are going to be guys taken away with that. It’s a tour that would really excite me. Playing for Ireland is still the ultimate for me, so when I go back to Bordeaux after this week’s break, hopefully I’ll be starting the next game against Stade Français.
“I’ll be looking to build performance on performance and get a good run of games towards the end of the season and show Joe that I’m fit and well and a viable option for him for what’s going to be a pretty tough tour. America have really built something special over the last few years and Japan, we saw in the last World Cup what they’re capable of doing when they beat South Africa.”
The Simon Hickey rivalry is nothing new, always battling other 10s?
“Like, Simon’s a good player, but it’s never been like that for me. I’ve never looked at another outhalf and gone, ‘What’s this guy doing that I’m not?’ For me, it’s just about being the best I can possibly be and just improving day-on-day.
“It has been a challenge for me going over there. There are certain things that I believe in how the game should be played and certain ways that I’ve been taught to do things by the Leinster coaches, the Irish coaches. Things are done slightly different over there, and at times I haven’t got it right in how I’ve tried to impart that knowledge, or having open conversations. But that’s something I’m working on and hopefully I’ll start to bear the fruits of it in the second half of the season.”
Did you think you could have ruptured relations with coaches beyond repair by going above their heads to the president?
“It was certainly a risk, but I wasn’t going in there to the president to criticise the overall system or have a real go at the coaches. That wasn’t it. It was an open conversation, you know, ‘Is this working on your part, is this working on my part?’ and ultimately about trying to get solutions. It wasn’t to see the exit door. The easy thing would have been to sit back and say ‘Ah, I’m on a two-year contract, I’ll catch form next season’ and let this season go. That’s just not in me. I want to fight for every selection while I’m over there. No different from when I was in Ireland.”
So this season or next season, would a return to any of the four provinces be something you would look at or would it be a return to Leinster?
“A return to Leinster would no doubt be top of my list. Having lived here, all my friends are here, and having played for Leinster. It is a pretty special place, but I would certainly be open to playing for any of the provinces.
“One thing about moving away this year, it definitely has opened up my horizons for who I can [play for], without doubt.
“The way professional sport is going players are going to have to do that more. If you look at the backrow situation in Leinster now, there are going to be some guys there who are going to have to make some big decisions. Or are they going to be happy sitting in a rotation system, or do they want to be first choice in another great club. There is just so much quality there.
“Ultimately, I think the IRFU are doing a great job to keep players there but you are going to have some exceptions, like any system.”
It looks like you are not playing for Ireland because you are playing abroad. If some of these Leinster backrowers move abroad, will that need to be looked at again?
“It’s one of those things that the national coaches will make a decision on, but it is dependent on so many different things. Is there an injury crisis in a certain position? What guys have hit form? That’s a decision they have to make. I don’t really know to be honest.”
The policy seems, from our perspective, to have hardened on not picking foreign-based players. Can you see that this season, even at outhalf?
“The way the IRFU run things, they make it really attractive to stay here. You are managed really well with strength and conditioning, physios, masseuses. How the rehab is set up – not rushing players back from injury – the amount of minutes you play in a season. They have to make that appealing because of the way the budgets have gone in the UK and France. They have to have a point of difference.”
Theoretically, if you were called into Ireland camp on Monday, could you get the next weekend off from Bordeaux-Bégles or – like Johnny had to do – would you have to fly back on the Thursday night?
“That is an issue. The honest answer there is I would have to go back as we have only one outhalf at the moment. A conversation could be had but I am pretty sure I would have to go back and play for my club. Reg 9 is only for Six Nations weeks so . . .”
Baptiste Serin is your team-mate, what do you think of him?
“Baptiste is a really special player. Deceptively very quick, fast pass, very accurate pass, gets to the breakdown really quickly, he is fit, he can box kick off both feet, loves a quick tap and he has got really flair – he can pull a rabbit out of his hat. He is one of those guys in training that regularly has guys standing still and saying ‘That was incredible.’ He is someone that Ireland definitely have to keep a close eye on. He is a scrumhalf that weighs up his options, he is not just thinking service, he is a threat himself.”