Leinster set to gain in battle for number 10 shirt
Statistics favour Ian Madigan but Jimmy Gopperth’s impact has become a genuine weapon
Leinster’s Jimmy Gopperth kicks a penalty against Connacht. His arrival from the bench helped propel his side to victory. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
It’s not the Leinster outhalf. It’s plural nowadays. Matt O’Connor keeps calling it one of those good problems.
Ian Madigan miscues from the kicking tee and Jimmy Gopperth arrives to reverse them out of the Sportsground with victory intact. O’Connor caught most by surprise when going with Madigan in Franklin’s Gardens. It was rewarded as his aerial peppering of a seemingly petrified Ken Pisi initiated a 40 point avalanche.
And on it goes.
“Two players that are very, very similar in the way they play the game,” said Richie Murphy. As their kicking and skills coach, Murphy would know.
“It’s nip and tuck that’s all I can say. Again, this week, there is a decision to be made on who is going to start. It is very tight run thing.
“The two lads have done a reasonable job when they’ve been in there. Johnny was obviously a massive loss but he is gone now, gone for a while.
“The guys have stepped into the position and tried to run the team for us and they have done the job pretty well.”
Still, the presumption is that eventually one of them must be viewed as the first choice. From a national perspective that needs to be Madigan. Otherwise, Paddy Jackson and possibly even JJ Hanrahan could pass him by.
“Mads and I will push each other every day,” said Gopperth yesterday. “It is only beneficial to the squad. As a player it is always good to have competition.”
Statistically speaking, Madigan is the superior option, lying third in the Pro 12 golden boot standings with 21 from 24 kicks for a success rate of 87.5 percent (incidentally, Hanrahan is top of the pile with 91.67 percent success rate or 33 from 36 attempts). Gopperth doesn’t feature in the top 10.
The Kiwi has played 16 games, four more than Madigan, since arriving as Johnny Sexton’s replacement last summer. Yet Madigan has more minutes, 757 to 735, and one extra start, nine to eight. And he featured thrice off the bench for Ireland in November.
Gopperth has more points, 116 to Madigan’s 81. They both have one try and Gopperth also clipped a drop goal against the Ospreys last September.
But it was the 30 year old’s 10 successful kicks against the Ospreys and Castres in rounds one and two of the Heineken Cup that seemed to mire Madigan in the supporting role he must have felt was a thing of the past, especially after holding off Jackson on Ireland’s North American tour.
Really there isn’t an incumbent at the moment but in the four European outings, Gopperth started two and featured in all of them, while Madigan started the last two.
As seen in Galway, Gopperth is developing reputation that most players dread. He looks a genuine impact replacement, having already arrived to good effect on eight occasions already this season. Madigan has survived some of these introductions by shifting to inside centre.
Murphy is correct, they are fairly similar players.
“Whatever mix Matt goes with myself and Mads complement each other pretty well,” Gopperth agreed.
Both relish the white heat of playing on the gainline, Madigan in particular is a natural running outhalf while Gopperth’s defence must be respected and there is an argument to suggest his game management is better. That’s an age thing. Madigan is undoubtedly improving this aspect of his game.
‘Right on the money’
“We got to play in the right areas of the park,” Gopperth noted of Sunday’s challenge down in Castres. “Our kick chase has to be right on the money. We were a little bit down on the kick chase last week and that gave Connacht the opportunities to run back at us. We can’t let the Castres back three run back at us because they will put holes in us.
“We know we’ve got to be tight on our kicking and chase game to get good field position to make sure we take our opportunities down there.”
One major concern is that neither player has done the business in France before.
Gopperth hasn’t got the opportunity because he sat tight with Newcastle for so long; a decision that looks increasingly peculiar with each passing performance for Leinster. Madigan because of Sexton’s guaranteed selection although he was at fullback for the 15-12 defeat to Clermont at the Stade Marcel Michelin last season.
“I’ve played in France a few times but Heineken Cup is a step up.”
A step up that may tip the balance one way or the other. Or not at all.