Battle with Jackson can propel exiled Ian Madigan back into Joe Schmidt's thinking
Published 13/10/2016 | 02:30
Tuesday marked the first anniversary of Ireland's cataclysmic World Cup win over France.
Rarely, if ever, has 80 minutes taken so much out of a rugby team. After the game, Joe Schmidt could barely raise a smile despite his team having reached an unprecedented high level of performance because of the toll the victory had taken.
In the changing room, Paul O'Connell knew he had played his final game, Peter O'Mahony's cruciate was gone, Johnny Sexton was sweating about his participation in the quarter-final and Sean O'Brien was awaiting news of a citing.
Somewhere in that cauldron of emotion was Ian Madigan, who had just given his best display in an Ireland jersey and left the field in tears having spotted his parents in the crowd.
A year on, the out-half's life has changed utterly. Centre of attention for that key week at the World Cup, he is now on the periphery as he accustoms himself to life in Bordeaux.
When Sexton failed to prove his fitness before the clash with Argentina, there was little doubt that Madigan would get the nod ahead of Paddy Jackson. Things didn't go his way, but he remained on the Millennium Stadium pitch for 80 minutes as the Ulsterman watched from the bench.
He remained Sexton's back-up for the remainder of the season, but once he announced his move to France he knew he was playing fast and loose with his international ambitions.
Sure enough, when the squad for last June's tour of South Africa was announced, the then Leinster tyro's name was absent. Sexton's shoulder injury granted him a reprieve, but he saw just eight minutes of action against the Springboks.
The pecking order has changed definitively in the 12 months since Cardiff and when he and Jackson go head to head at Stade Chaban-Delmas on Sunday, it is Madigan who needs a performance that will remind the Ireland selectors why he was the man a year ago.
Last week, Joey Carbery was called up to train with Ireland ahead of the November internationals.
There is no official IRFU rule on overseas-based players, but until now Sexton has been the only man Schmidt has called in from outside Ireland.
Madigan's unavailability for preparatory camps and during Six Nations down weeks is always going to work against him and, when Sexton and Jackson are fit, it looks likely that they will be called on.
Jackson's performances in South Africa weren't perfect, but the chance to play three high-intensity Test matches comes rarely and he has earned trust with his displays.
Previously, Schmidt pointed to Madigan's better kicking percentages and ability to cover a range of positions as the reason he had edged the battle to back Sexton up in the past, but the pendulum has swung in Jackson's favour.
Over the course of his 16-Test career, Jackson has a 69pc success rate from the tee compared to Madigan's 76pc, but in 2016 the Ulsterman raised his rate to 78pc. His team-mates have noticed his growth since that tour.
"Since he returned this season, Jacko has been unbelievable," Craig Gilroy said. "He's a joy to play with, and it's great to see the way he's improving and getting better in every game.
"I played with Jacko at school and he has come on so much year after year. He had a fantastic summer tour with Ireland and has carried that form right into this season."
Although they have made individual improvements, both Jackson and Madigan have a way to go to dethroning Sexton.
"When I put into context the fantastic bench performance of Ian Madigan against France. . . I thought he came on and did a great job," Schmidt said after this year's Six Nations.
"But the way Johnny marshals the team around him, the way he manages to get the best out of other players is admirable every time he puts the jersey on. When he demands physical effort from players, they are very willing workers for him because of what he puts on the line for the team.
"So, I suppose, that along with the skill element that he brings to the game, the experience that he brings to the game. . . they're incredibly important for us.
"Ian Madigan has grown, Paddy Jackson has made some decisions really tough for us during this Six Nations.
"Ian's versatility to be able to cover a number of positions made him a little bit more attractive as a bench proposition, but Paddy's entire game is coming on as well and it's great to have him learning from guys like Johnny.
"That's a progress that can continue. It's unfortunate that Ian is going away and he's hopeful of playing a couple of seasons at Bordeaux where he's at No 10, and at the same time it gives an opportunity to Paddy and Ian Keatley."
With Keatley's form falling off a cliff and Jack Carty struggling for form in Connacht, the trio of out-halves from last year's World Cup remain the contenders.
Carbery is one for the future, while Tyler Bleyendaal comes on stream next autumn, but for now it's still a case of Jackson and Madigan battling for attention behind the No 1 man.
No doubt Schmidt has kept a close eye on Bordeaux's games so far and will be impressed with Madigan's return of 84pc from the tee across his seven games, five of which have been starts, to date.
Still, to the wider public his exploits in the Top 14 have largely gone un-noticed and he'll know just how valuable a big display opposite Jackson would be in pressing his case and reminding the folks back home why he was the go-to man a year ago.