Madigan eager to make point on homecoming as Ulster bid to reboot season
The number crunchers will tell you that Ulster's clash with Bordeaux-Begles today is more than just a dead-rubber but, in reality, unfavourable results in the last round for each side all but ended their interest in the competition.
And even against such a seemingly inconsequential backdrop, with both teams in need of a bonus-point win and results to go their way elsewhere to have the slightest chance of progressing, the return of Ian Madigan for his first game on Irish soil since leaving Leinster for Bordeaux has flown under the radar.
Perhaps that is because even if the Dubliner was to thoroughly outplay rival out-half Paddy Jackson, it would not be sufficient for Joe Schmidt to radically change tack and include a foreign-based player in the Six Nations squad he will name on Monday.
Twelve months ago, Madigan was Ireland's back-up out-half, his versatility and stellar place-kicking earning him a place on the bench ahead of an in-form Jackson throughout the Six Nations.
But after his move to France was made official, the new world order for Irish fly-halves was quickly established when Schmidt selected Jackson ahead of Madigan for the June tour of South Africa, although the 27-year-old did get a belated call-up when Johnny Sexton required shoulder surgery.
Over the three-Test trip, Madigan played just seven minutes, in the third game, as Ireland let a famous series win slip through their fingers. Conversely, Jackson thrived and Ireland earned their first win on South African soil in the first Test.
Fast-forward five months and, even with personal reasons preventing Jackson from travelling to Chicago to face the All Blacks, Madigan received no SOS. And, instead, an near-unknown Joey Carbery was drafted in and Ireland made history.
One thing Madigan and Jackson certainly do have in common at present is that they are both the attacking pivots of teams desperately out of form.
Bordeaux, who beat Ulster in round one, have lost their previous five games, including last week's turgid 9-6 home defeat to Clermont that essentially ended their Champions Cup quarter-final hopes.
With that possibly in mind, Rafael Ibanez has made eight changes to the side that lost at the Stade Chaban-Delmas, while Les Kiss brings in six new faces after Ulster's deflating defeat at Exeter.
Four of those come in the front-five, as Ross Kane and Tommy O'Hagan become the latest in a long line of Ulster props fighting injury.
Tighthead Jonny Simpson makes his first start for the club in the front-row alongside Ireland skipper Rory Best and Andrew Warwick.
In the second row, Robbie Diack and the Cardiff-bound Franco van der Merwe will pack down together for the first time. Kiss has recalled Tommy Bowe at right-wing, and he joins a dynamic back-three that includes Andrew Trimble and Charles Piutau.
Darren Cave comes into midfield to partner Stuart McCloskey, while Dave Shanahan is retained at No 9.
Piutau is looking for a victory that can reboot Ulster's season and get their fans excited.
"There is a lot on this game for us. We have a lot to prove to ourselves and our fans," said the Kiwi. "Leading into the other games, we want to make a statement.
"We set high standards and had high hopes for both competitions this season. The reality is that one is now over for us but the positive side is that there is still silverware left on the table."
Ulster have lost eight of their last 12 games and must raise standards today for - if nothing else - the sake of morale and the restoration of their wounded pride.
ULSTER - C Piutau; T Bowe, D Cave, S McCloskey, A Trimble (captain); P Jackson, D Shanahan; A Warwick, R Best, J Simpson; R Diack, F van der Merwe; I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy. Reps: J Andrew, C Black, R Lutton, K Treadwell, C Ross, P Marshall, B Herron, C Gilroy.
BORDEAUX-BEGLES - G Cros; N Ducuing, J Baptiste Dubié, J Wakacegu, B Connor; I Madigan, Y Lesgourgues; S Kitshoff, C Maynadier, M Clerc, T Palmer, B Botha; L Madaule, L Goujon, M Tauleigne. Reps: B Auzqui, S Taofifenua, V Cobilas,J Edwards, H Chalmers, J Audy, S Hickey,J Rey.
Ref - M Carley (RFU)
Ulster v Bordeaux-Begles
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