Ian Madigan: Unless you're at the top of the game you won't be making World Cup squad
Leinster stalwart urges axed out-half Keatley not to lose faith
Given his end-of-season form with Munster, the exclusion of Ian Keatley from Ireland's 45-man World Cup training squad didn't exactly send tremors through the rugby sphere, but in many ways, it was in itself a statement from Joe Schmidt.
Keatley was chosen ahead of Ian Madigan for the opening Six Nations game in Rome which gave an insight into Schmidt's long-term thinking - or so one might have thought.
Almost five months on, the landscape has very much changed for the Munster out-half but for his namesake, he remains an integral part of Schmidt's plans.
As Madigan and the rest of the Irish squad get set to reconvene at Carton House on Sunday, the versatile playmaker isn't taking anything for granted as he looks to seal his spot in the 31 man squad that will travel to the World Cup.
With Paddy Jackson ending the season in excellent form with Ulster, Madigan knows that competition for places is more fierce than ever.
"I don't think all four (out-halves) can go and maybe all three can't go as well so there might only be two left," says Madigan.
"I think there's no doubt there's going to be at least one player outside that group of 45 that will still go to the World Cup, either through guys getting injured during warm-up games or during pre-season, or guys losing form or word filtering through the provincial camps that certain guys are killing it in training and are invited into the Ireland squad.
"It's important that the guys who didn't make the 45-man squad, don't lose faith and take any opportunity to put their hand up for selection.
"When you're representing your country, you've got to be at the top of your game to be getting picked, be it in the 23, the 31 to make the squad or the starting 15.
"You've to be at the top of your game to be in that group. We've won back-to-back Six Nations and it's a pretty special team to be involved in.
"I don't think anyone would expect to be in that squad unless they're at the top of their game."
Keatley's form dipped in the latter part of last season and given that Madigan has made no secret of his desire to play at out-half, for now at least, it is a case of one less man competing to be Johnny Sexton's back-up.
The 26-year-old has never viewed himself as playing second fiddle to anyone, Sexton included, and his versatility in that he spent most of last season playing at inside centre, gives him a distinct advantage over the likes of Keatley and Jackson. "I wouldn't view myself as competing with Johnny, Paddy or Ian. I've always had the view that I'm competing against myself," says Madigan.
"For me, it's just about getting myself in the best physical shape I can be in and getting myself in the best mental state, and taking my opportunities if they come my way as best I can.
"At the end of the pre-season and warm-up games, I'll know that I'll have been true to myself and trained as hard as I can.
"If that means I'm the starting out-half or it means I'm going back to Leinster and not going to the World Cup, I can still look myself in the eye and know that I've given it absolutely everything.
"It's about showing Joe I can cover as many positions as possible. If you can do that at the top level, there's no doubt you are more valuable to the coach.
"There are going to be guys in the squad, whether it's a back-row who can cover No6, 7, and 8 or a tighthead prop who can cover loosehead or back three guys who can cover wing and full-back.
"When you can only pick 31 guys, it's definitely an asset if you can cover more than one position."
Madigan has spent the last month on 'holiday' but that is an extremely loose term given that the World Cup is constantly at the forefront of his mind.
"For me, I felt I needed a mental break from games. Physically I felt really good and was able to do a fair bit of training. I didn't feel it was a chore," he admits.
"I've had a few conversations with Joe. He's made it clear what he expects from me for him to be able to pick me in the squad. I know that if I fall short of that I won't be in it.
"You can sense even from being in Dublin, my buddies from school would tell me something like 'I saw Fergus McFadden or Sean Cronin in the gym this morning'.
"There's definitely a feeling of guys staying on top of training on this off-season that you wouldn't really get in other years. That is what's special about the World Cup."
Tensions are sure to run high in Carton House over the coming weeks as Schmidt prepares to whittle down his squad.
Until the final squad is named, the mood in the camp is likely to take on more of an edge compared to Six Nations weeks, but Madigan is relishing everything that lies ahead.
"It's going to be competitive. It's going to be the pinnacle of our careers. I haven't played in a World Cup and this is definitely my best chance to get in.
"I'm 26 now. I'll be 30 for the next one. It's where we want to be. The fact that we've got such a good team, such a good coach, guys know it's probably going to be a successful World Cup for us.
"It's about getting on the bus now."