Madigan stakes Ireland claim as Leinster defeat Ulster
Leinster 24 Ulster 11
The maverick must always walk the fine line. Flying high one week, grounded with thudding meekness the next.
Ian Madigan is one of the sport's rebellious types, at once the kind of player that can sparkle the public's imagination and rankle his well-prepared coaching staff.
With gilded talents such as his, it often can be the case that unpredictability can be both a comrade and an enemy; equanimity is rarely in plentiful supply, as those following Leinster's wildly unpredictably season can testify.
Madigan has been the fans' favourite at the RDS this season but the coaching staff have not always reflected the enthusiasm of those in the bleachers that the Blackrock man should always play in the storied ten jumper.
Madigan has remained unbowed as only the maverick must. While Dan Tuohy's first-half inanity opened the door for Leinster to thieve the momentum of a listing game, it was Madigan's decisive impact that smashed it.
As the lazily back-pedalling Ulster players and many in the crowd, some still returning from the bars, braced themselves for yet another in a series of Leinster lineouts (19 in all), Madigan seized the moment for himself.
Feigning to punt the ball into the stands for a driving maul, instead he tapped to himself; the lumbering figures of Roger Wilson and Callum Black would normally chew up an out-half and spit him out in normal circumstances.
But these weren't normal circumstances; instead, this was a reminder that sometimes intelligence and intuition can triumph in a sport that now, more than ever, has become prescriptive to the point of monotony.
Little wonder an erstwhile colleague of the 25-year-old expressed his admiration from the couch. "Cheeky deceptive flick of the eye there from @Ian_madigan for his score. #naughty," tweeted an approving Brian O'Driscoll.
Leinster coach Matt O'Connor, who supervised the supreme maverick, Geordan Murphy, in his time as an assistant at Leicester, also approved, even if his residual critics may have perceived his approbation to be begrudging.
"It wasn't overly conventional," smiled O'Connor of Madigan's inspired decision to apply the accelerator to a game that had spluttered along in first gear for much of the preceding 41 minutes.
"But it was a crucial score all the same. Fair play to him, he plays what is in front of him. He saw the opportunity and he took it. It was fairly cheap from their end but we'll take it."
Now Madigan is primed to face Italy next month. He may need to direct the game more assuredly from its inception - a restart out on the full and some injudicious kicking choices from the hand betrays a still fickle temperament in what had been a poor first half from him. Madigan must develop the hard edge to impose his personality from the 41st second, not just the 41st minute.
"Yeah, Mads had been prepping that move all week," grinned forwards coach Leo Cullen, whose grizzled pedigree would usually frown on the out-half spurning the opportunity for a pack to show their claws.
"I was like 'no, what are you doing?'. I would have fancied the boys to drive them over from there but Mads thought better of it and it paid off."
Had Madigan been turned over on the line and the opportunity spurned, the inquisition may have been re-directed into a discussion about the wisdom of the decision.
Sport loses its allure if scripted to the letter, however. There must occasionally be room for the individual to rebel against the collective, as Cullen mercifully concedes.
"It is good to have guys who want to be a little bit different because the greatest player of all time has just retired and he was prepared to try things," says Cullen, in fleeting reference to the great centre whose absence is still being mourned around these parts.
"You have to be ballsy to try things and it came off for Mads today."
When a similar opportunity presented itself later in the second half, assistant coach Richie Murphy raced on to the field to direct his out-half towards the posts; he knew his player had done so much to guide his team into a winning position, now he wanted him to secure it.
"I thought Mads controlled the game pretty well," summed up Cullen. "We created some opportunities, maybe we didn't quite finish all of them off but Mads generally played the game in the right areas of the field and we exerted some pressure.
"We would have settled for that result before the game so I thought Mads led the team well, as he did during the course of the week."
The week hadn't started well, what with humiliation in Thomond Park, and Saturday's opening wasn't brimming with good omens either; the opening line-break was, in fact, forged by Ulster when Tuohy slipped through the Leinster rearguard thanks to Paddy Jackson's superb flat pass.
But, as they have regularly done here recently, Ulster's challenge exponentially faded away into nothing and allowed Leinster to declare their superiority in a game where mediocrity reigned for long periods.
A stunning 51 missed tackles and a total of 24 turnovers hardly advertised that this was the country that may host potential World Cup winners; Munster's tame defeat in Galway this week indicates that all three of Ireland's Champions Cup contenders are a long way from their best.
Leinster won the sin-bin period 10-0 but somehow allowed Ulster to score a try themselves after the home side fluffed their lines, as they did quite often, before Jack Conan, man of the match, secured a contest which, in effect, had rarely looked in doubt since Tuohy's dumb decision.
"You can't play the nine," said a seething Neil Doak, whose side have won just once away from home this term. "Simple as that there."
His province could go into freefall now. Leinster go to Cardiff with many outsiders uncertain as to their status; those within remain enthused.
"There's a lot of expectation on the team, and it is always good to have that pressure," added Cullen. "When things aren't necessarily going great guys can sometimes go into their shells a little bit.
"Some of the guys try to compensate by forcing the issue at times but if we get a fuller deck then it creates a competitive environment and we will be in a good place.
"We are entering into a period which very much defines our season. Nothing is won in January but you can get yourself into a pretty good position."
Like Madigan, they may be primed to kick on from this.
Leinster: Z Kirchner (J Gopperth 70); F McFadden, L Fitzgerald, G D'Arcy (B Te'o), D Kearney; I Madigan, I Boss (L McGrath 70); J McGrath (M Bent 73), R Strauss (S Cronin 56), M Ross (T Furlong 56), D Toner, M McCarthy (K Douglas 61), J Conan, J Murphy, J Heaslip capt (J van der Flier 29).
Ulster: P Nelson; T Bowe (L Marshall 49), D Cave, S Olding, C Gilroy, P Jackson, R Pienaar (P Marshall 73); C Black (A Warwick 69), R Best capt (R Herring 75), W Herbst (B Ross 70), D Tuohy, F van der Merwe (A O'Connor 70), R Diack, C Ross (S Reidy (65), R Wilson.
Referee: M Mitrea (FIR).