Friday 21 July 2017

Neil Francis: Lost talent Madigan condemned to finish his career in the twilight zone

World Cup star paying a heavy price for moving to France instead of hanging tough closer to home

Ireland's Ian Madigan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Ireland's Ian Madigan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

One of the most beautiful places I have visited is John Muir Woods, which is a great Redwood enclave an hour north of San Francisco. The death-wall silence and whispering serenity of the place is truly awe-inspiring. These giants can grow to 300 feet tall and some of the trees are over 2,000 years old.

When one of these behemoths goes down it is a trigger point - a rush from the forest floor to stretch out to the canopy. The fight for light begins. Sometimes the fallen tree grows new shoots at the perpendicular; sometimes a sapling waiting for the right moment just happens to be in the right place at the right time to reach for the sky. Two thousand years is a long wait to take your chance. You can see the race happening before your eyes. Whichever tree grows the quickest gets that gap in the canopy.

In any tragic event, timing is often the sharpest blade. Seven new Leinster academy players were rolled out last week, all pushing for sunlight. Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne have, in the space of four or five months, impressed and electrified. We knew they were there, it was just hard to see them at the bottom of the forest floor. The fight for light has seen Carbery play in Chicago and win against the All Blacks and Byrne star for Leinster in the European Cup. Great stories.

The fallen tree? Ian Madigan's plight seems scarcely plausible. The timing of Madigan's trip home and the announcement of Carbery and Byrne's accession was purely coincidental; no one would have been Machiavellian enough to stage-manage such a coup de grace. Madigan's career is now a lament. This is the ballad of Ian Madigan.

In the heady aftermath of the World Cup victory over France in Cardiff, Madigan's post-match tears struck a chord with the nation. We like winners. We identify with champions, especially when they realise the enormity of the occasion - beating France at a World Cup. Then that player is overcome with emotion when he connects with his family in the stands. A poignant moment. At that stage I thought he had crossed the Rubicon. Madigan put in a measured and reassured performance. He could be trusted with the reins in the biggest competition.

Ireland fell apart the following week, when Madigan was just one of 15 who under-performed. Having played integral parts in Leinster's 2011 and 2012 Heineken Cups and Ireland's 2014 and 2015 Six Nations wins, all Madigan had to do was keep the bus between the ditches and a rewarding career would still be ahead of him.

Media talk and conventional wisdom precipitated a view that Madigan should leave Leinster because Johnny Sexton would be returning home. Nobody really analysed the fact that Sexton matured and evolved while sitting in the number two seat behind Felipe Contepomi. Madigan thrived as he played deputy to Sexton, and this was not detrimental to his advent to the national side.

Leinster went off and bought Jimmy Gopperth to plug the gap when Sexton went to Paris. Gopperth was a smart footballer and a decent outhalf. His major selling point was that he had real pace - rare for a controller. There are, though, 30 or 40 Jimmy Gopperths in New Zealand. In all of the big matches for Leinster, Gopperth always seemed to get the nod. How could this be? Denying game-time for Ireland's bright young thing and probable replacement for Sexton when the time came, if not before?

This brings us to the kernel of the issue. Madigan, brilliant in a lot of respects, is just not good enough at the highest level. People can debate that but if he was good enough to be the main man he would not be in the predicament he finds himself in now.

Madigan has many of the qualities required to play at international level at 10 - and that is what he is. He is not an inside-centre and neither is he a full-back. He is a high-percentage place-kicker, accurate and reliable under pressure. His hands are really good and his distribution is first-class. He attacks the gain-line well and plays flat.

He is a running threat at 10 and defences have to check because he takes a lot of ball on himself. He is a dangerous open-field runner. He has an array of footballing skills that not many possess in this corner of the world. He has bucket-loads of intuition and instinct. He has real pace and is a consummate footballer. He can read a game well, but what he lacks is the ability to control a match or boss it. Maybe that is counter-intuitive to Madigan's personality.

It took David Humphreys, Ronan O'Gara and Sexton a while to acquire the mental skills to manage the game, but they got there. It would have come for Madigan: the graph was always going up. Just keep making incremental improvements. Those graced in these matters mostly get to where they need to go.

When Sexton returned to Leinster, Madigan was the undisputed number two fly half in the country and a safe pair of hands if Sexton was unavailable. Madigan would always be assured game-time for Leinster and Ireland. It was not a case of biding his time; he was always on the pitch, always involved. All he had to do was keep doing what he was doing and everything would have been fine. Madigan would have been on course for 70 caps, more championships and more medals.

When Madigan signed for Bordeaux Begles I was more than surprised. I wrote a piece in January 2016 which contained a couple of things which are now coming home to roost: "Going to BB is definitely not the right option, either. How big a mistake it is at this stage is unquantifiable. From Madigan's perspective it is a really risky move and I would wonder whether he really thought out all the angles and permutations on this one before he signed."

The key to this whole saga was expressed thus: "If you are a representative player, green is always the colour you think about! Not dollar green." Madigan would have been on in excess of €200,000 a year in Ireland, plus extras. The deal for Bordeaux Begles was in excess of €500,000. There is a large premium in that for what you give up in lifestyle and proximity. It is only when you can't nip out for a quick pint/dinner with any one of a hundred people in your extended group in Dublin that you realise the premium in Laurent Marti's package. The real price, though, is no international rugby. What price is enough before you decide that you can forego that?

We love the French and they love us but they are socially misanthropic and friendships are hard to grow, no matter how good the Chablis is. Madigan struggled in a new environment. 'Driceaux' talked the talk but was clever enough not to go!

Madigan had the language and that was a good start to his adventure but a groin strain and a major row ensued with coach Raphael Ibanez, where Madigan should really have held his counsel. There was only going to be one winner there. Simon Hickey, a talented Kiwi outhalf, but ten-a-penny, not unlike Gopperth, is Bordeaux Begles' starter now and was always likely to be.

Madigan's untenable situation became a matter of public knowledge in the last week or so but the way it has been handled would make the Keystone Kops blush. Madigan, in the lead-up to his decision to move to France, could have received advice from dozens of people - his parents, his agent, playing colleagues, friends and even the Irish management. Ultimately it was his decision to go.

He must have known that Joe Schmidt and David Nucifora are ruthless when it comes to having control over their players. Once Madigan set foot on that plane his Irish career was compromised.

On his recent sojourn Madigan said: "A move back to Ireland would certainly excite me - there is no doubt about that. Playing for Ireland is still the ultimate for me." In the 36-man squad announced on Thursday there are no players included from outside the four provinces. It is crystal clear that if you leave the Irish provincial system to play rugby in England or France you will not be chosen for Ireland. Sexton and Bowe got away with it, but that situation wouldn't pertain now. If playing for Ireland is the ultimate then why did Madigan go to Bordeaux? Schmidt has not left him in any doubt about his position. He was not originally selected for the tour of South Africa. He was injured but not picked in November, and then came the choke-damp reality of having Ian Keatley picked ahead of him for the first two Tests. The move at all stages was folly if Madigan was serious about Ireland.

Paddy Jackson made a quantum leap in South Africa and played really well in the first two games of the championship. He is the undisputed number two and a vital cog in the wheel. Carbery's sights are set on him, not Madigan.

Madigan's trip home last week was a PR disaster. The press should not have been involved at all and Madigan should have forgone the Electric Ireland gig - whatever the fee was, it wasn't worth it. It is unwise to engage in a 'come and get me' ploy when you are still under contract. Madigan got humiliated in the rugby domain when Connacht said (in public) that they did not want him.

Later in the week Girvan Dempsey was wheeled out and said: "He is too talented a guy not to be snapped up by a club. I imagine he'll be picked up pretty quickly." Dempsey is a nice fella and tried to couch it as nicely as he could that Leinster did not need nor want one of their favourite sons back. Sometimes it is better to say it as it is; it wasn't exactly, "Fredo, you're nothing to me now" - but that was the net effect!

If ever a moment encapsulated the fact that rugby has become a cold and unforgiving business, that was it. The folly was compounded as suddenly a bidding war commenced and Northampton apparently put £500,000 on Madigan's head. I am led to believe that Bristol have beaten that offer and a deal could be signed this weekend. After so much free information in the previous two weeks, nobody is saying a word now. I am reminded of the late Adrian Hardiman's stonewalling of the press when he said: "If today is Saturday I can't even confirm that tomorrow is Sunday." We will know soon enough.

If it is Bristol, that would finish Madigan's international career. Bristol are last in the Aviva Premiership on 17 points, two points behind Worcester. They play each other today at 3.0 in Sixways Stadium. If Bristol lose then they will likely go down to the Greene King India Pale Ale RFU Championship - the name of the league is not a joke. The Cornish Pirates and the Ealing Trailfinders are not the sort of company you keep when you want to enhance your international credentials.

Joe Schmidt is keeping in touch with Madigan but I suspect on a purely platonic basis. Sexton will go on the Lions. Jackson and Carbery will go to Japan. Madigan and Marty Moore and co will have the summer off to reflect.

The whole episode has been badly handled and Madigan is probably wishing for a Bobby Ewing shower scene where everyone else has only dreamt he went away. Madigan is too good a player to have circumstance deflect his career. Irish rugby is in such rude health that it can afford to let someone like Madigan make an error of judgement and be unwilling or unable to bail him out of his predicament. And this despite his undoubted quality, potential and past service to his country and his province. Madigan could finish out his career in a grey space, a twilight zone devoid of international rugby which he really needs to fulfil his talent. It is a ruthless business.

ps: I see Josh Strauss is leaving the Glasgow Warriors and joining Sale Sharks next season. Strauss was born 30 years ago in Belville, South Africa. His parents and all his antecedents are South African and he had never been to Scotland until he joined Glasgow in September 2012. In September 2015 he became eligible under the residency rule to play for Scotland. Other than being resident in Glasgow, Strauss had no connection whatsoever to Scotland.

Strauss instructed his agent to go and get him a better deal than he was on in Glasgow, and sure enough Sale came up with pots of money for the mercenary. The only thing that qualified Strauss - a complete outsider - to play for Scotland was that he played in Scotland for a Scottish side. That situation has now ceased because of greater monetary gains in England.

We all know this is morally and ethically wrong because getting to play for your country is the highest honour you can achieve. Getting to play for someone else's country? Well, respect for the jersey and the circumstances of your advent to Scotland should be observed now that you are a resident. Casually bogging off to play your club rugby in England while continuing to play for the country that you have deserted for more money is a travesty.

I am reliably informed that this shit stops in May when World Rugby will put a five-year rule in place.

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