'Big Time' has come to Ian Madigan. He didn't ask.
'Big Time' just kind of fell into his pocket. Dan McFarland, the Ulster coach, used the phrase as a term of endearment for his replacement outhalf, whose two kicks against Edinburgh last week to draw level and then win, brought the match to a last-gasp Broadway finish.
All the metrics that go into measuring how difficult a kick is deserved the orchestral glitz and flames usually reserved for matches in the Aviva. Instead the distant echo of Ulster jubilation rising from the dugout around an empty stadium made do. For Madigan it was an uptick after 18 months that, by his own admission, sometimes found him out over his skis wondering if he would topple.
By nature Madigan is an upbeat, thoughtful player, who refuses to be classified by boilerplate slogans. He gently reminds us that he has not had to “banish his demons” although he concedes Bristol was no lark.
“I don’t have demons from the last 18 months,” he says. “I still think I’ve been true to myself and how I’ve gone about training, getting my mind right and getting my body right. At the same time it was probably a period that went quite slowly for me.
“I’m very lucky. I’ve great people around me, my fiancé Anna, my parents and friends, being able to draw on them and spend time with them over the last few months and getting them to build my confidence back up. Look it hasn’t been the easiest 18 months for me. But you graft away and when it comes good for you it’s sweet.”
It’s an honest admission from the 31-year-old with the ‘Big Time’ stamp also inferring a kind of striding arrogance and rock solid confidence.
But, frustrated at a lack of playing time after falling out of favour with director of rugby Pat Lam, who progressively put his faith in the running game of Callum Sheedy and emerging Welsh teenage talent Ioan Lloyd, Madigan had little option at Bristol but to sling his hook elsewhere. Ulster, he says, is a good fit.
“Dan is big on the psychological side. He has been great for building confidence and ensuring I fit into the squad. I felt I’d settled in after a few days and after a couple of weeks felt that I’d built good friendships. Before I hit the kick . . . I think Alan O’Connor was captain . . . he told me he loved me. I only know him a few weeks.”
There is always the weekly tangle to start matches with Billy Burns, who began last weekend and former Garryowen and Munster outhalf Bill Johnston also demanding the stage. But Madigan sees the locker room ecosystem as less ceaseless combat and more a collaborative tension.
He will come out swinging big when needs be. But experience has shown him that a life of endless attrition around Ravenhill is neither desirable, helpful or even sustainable. While he and Burns both want a start on Saturday against Leinster, the pieces that allow McFarland to decide who that is are not based on scar tissue from training ground bust-ups.
“If you have a relationship with the other 10s where you are withholding information or with one of you kicking on the other side of the pitch and not talking, it would actually be exhausting,” he says.
“My philosophy has been for the last few years is that regardless of who gets picked at 10, you want they guy doing as good a job as possible. The fact it’s Billy the first week, I want him to do a really good job because it’s driving the team forward.
“If I’m in the following week the team is in a better position than maybe when I was in three weeks ago. I got to start the Leinster game and Billy started last week. When the time comes we’ll go bloody hard to compete. “
The theme of Leinster players bedding into Ulster has become so tiresome now that he doesn't want to talk about it. Where is the value in that for a province with such a strong identity to place. Ulster folk, he says, are just fine with whomever lines out whether it's him or John Cooney, or Jordi Murphy or Jack McGrath.
“The culture here is good. There are certain clubs who talk up the culture and if they keep saying how good the culture is maybe people will start believing it. Players themselves will believe it and I don’t think that’s the case here. Culture is looking to drive a team on to be the best we can be, doing it yourself for the team. It’s very hard to pin it down. It comes from within.”
Match four for Madigan arrives on Saturday as a novel virus begets a novel final in September. A 14-year Ulster drought against a Leinster team festooned with winner’s rosettes. ‘Big Time’ beckons once more.