Madigan and Jackson do battle in dress rehearsal for Ireland No. 10 spot
ONE of the most fascinating duels in prospect in the RDS tonight will be that between Leinster's hot-shot out-half Ian Madigan and Ulster's newest international pivot Paddy Jackson.
It is a showdown between a hitman riding high on a wave generated by his confident performance against Glasgow and a younger rival who has been fast-tracked to prominence by his club and country.
The contest between the two is no less attractive because in Jackson, Ulster have a personality who is understated, and the very opposite of showy, while in Madigan, Leinster have an erratic genius capable of blinding inspiration and possessing a swagger that is highly prized.
As a consequence, the big focus tonight is not on the final result – both combatants are likely to qualify for the play-offs – but on the respective 10s, for these two players clearly represent the future of the Irish game.
In Ireland's rugby history there have been many battles for the out-half berth. The competition between Tony Ward and Ollie Campbell still resonates. Surely the rivalry between Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton will also be talked about by future generations.
Ward, of course, didn't have it all his own way after Campbell retired, as he was then challenged by Paul Dean, who was, in turn, challenged by Ralph Keyes.
Keyes went to the 1991 World Cup as Ireland's first choice out-half and finished the tournament as its top-scorer.
Keyes was himself usurped by Eric Elwood. In time, the Connacht man had his own battle with Ulster's David Humphreys, who, of course, had a certain Corkman nipping at his heels for a few years, with O'Gara going on to become one of Ireland's truly indispensable players.
O'Gara was unchallenged as first-choice pivot until 2010, when Jonathan Sexton started eyeing his shirt.
And now Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan have Sexton in their sights. Given the cut-throat competition that clearly goes hand-in-hand with the position, who'd be an Irish out-half?
The Ulster No 10 took the lead over his rival during the Six Nations when he started the final three games of the championship against Scotland, France and Italy, but Madigan has looked particularly irresistible since resuming his duties with Leinster.
He was impressive in the win over Glasgow last Saturday. Two kicks for position stood out, as he twice drilled the ball just above grass level 30 yards into touch. They were executed with the confidence of a man who knows he's in form.
Former Ireland and Leinster out-half Brian O'Meara believes that Madigan's greater maturity and confidence should have seen him picked ahead of Jackson during the Six Nations.
"Ian is the more aggressive player of the two when it comes to taking the ball to the gain-line. He attacks the line more and has a carefree attitude that I don't think Paddy has developed yet," said O'Meara.
"One of the reasons for this is that Ian has had to work to get where he is. It hasn't come easy for him and he's learned an awful lot along the way from being behind Jonathan Sexton.
"Paddy, on the other hand, walked into a Heineken Cup final without serving the apprenticeship that Ian has. He's not had to fight for his position with Ulster the way Ian had to with Leinster and that, I believe, is to Ian's advantage."
O'Meara, who spent six seasons with Leinster, sees a similarity between Jackson's sudden elevation to the international scene and his own when he won the first of his nine Ireland caps in 1997 as a 20-year-old. He went on to play in two World Cup games in 1999 and won his last cap in 2003 against Italy in Limerick.
"I suppose there are similarities. Paddy will have been over the moon to be playing for his country. But in hindsight was he ready for the step-up? I don't think so," he said.
"There was a lot of pressure on his shoulders and it would have been an easier step-up had he been started in one of the home games. When he missed the couple of kicks in Murrayfield it added even more pressure.
"He was rushed into international football when he wasn't ready for it. Maybe the fact that Ian wasn't playing a lot of rugby at out-half at the time was against him, but I'd still have gone for him."
The biggest difference O'Meara identifies between tonight's competing out-halves is how they align themselves, with Jackson standing too deep for his liking. As a consequence, Jackson isn't a huge threat himself.
"Ian is a threat with ball in hand. If you are going to worry defences you need to stand a lot flatter than Jackson does," he said.
"Madigan is the quicker player and he backs himself all the time. I don't think Paddy has that same confidence in himself.
"It's a very impressive string in Ian's bow. Jackson will improve and will add to his game in time. At the moment, though, Madigan is the stronger player for me."
It is often the way in modern rugby that the contest is decided by the 10s. Everything goes through them and they are the barometer for their team's well-being. It is for that reason, among others, O'Meara believes victory will be Leinster's tonight.
"I think Leinster have turned a corner for the better in recent weeks. It seems Ulster have turned one too ... but in a very different way," he added. "There is a confidence about Leinster and, in particular, Madigan. That could be the difference in the game."
At 24, Madigan has a couple of years more experience on Jackson. He made his senior Leinster debut back in 2009, while Jackson made his for Ulster in 2011 and has less than half of Madigan's front-line exposure.
Ireland are fortunate to be blessed with such riches at out-half. The contest tonight should identify the one best equipped to back-up Sexton in the national squad.