Moment of truth arrives for Madigan to prove he can kick on as Leinster pivot
THE question for Leinster, and their starting out-half in the RDS tonight, is whether or not Ian Madigan is ready to take his game to the next level.
Madigan is at a pivotal moment. It is not overstating the matter to suggest that the trajectory of his career will be determined by how well he performs in Jonny Sexton's absence through injury from the Leinster team.
If Madigan soars, Joe Schmidt might well decide that he need only recruit a back-up out-half.
If the Blackrock College graduate stumbles the Leinster coach will continue his search for a starting pivot for next season.
Madigan has everything to gain – and plenty to lose.
There is no doubting his talent and potential. Last season he took full advantage of the injury to Mat Berquist and established himself as Sexton's understudy. Indeed, so impressive were his Pro12 performances, that it was accepted he was the third-choice Ireland out-half behind Sexton and Ronan O'Gara.
As a ball-playing out-half, Madigan is something special. His running ability and eye for the try-line are right up there.
His versatility has also been highlighted this season, with his cameos at full-back during Rob Kearney's injury.
These attributes are hugely positive and strongly suggest Madigan is absolutely bound for the top. There is, however, a caveat – his goal-kicking.
It's not that Madigan isn't accurate from the tee. Since making his debut appearance off the bench in the 2008/09 season, he has kicked 19 conversions and 33 penalties (scoring 15 tries and two drop-goals). The issue concerns his consistency, as his lapses have meant that he has not always been the first-choice kicker.
Fergus McFadden has kicked 34 conversions and 56 penalties since making his debut in the 2007/08 season, while Isa Nacewa has amassed 39 conversions and 61 penalties since donning the Leinster uniform.
Leinster take to the pitch tonight with both McFadden and Madigan in the starting line-up.
The former starts on the left wing, with Madigan (pictured, opposite page) detailed to conduct the orchestra from his natural habitat at out-half. So, who will be assigned the kicking duties?
Madigan will hope to get the nod, because it is only by proving he is ready to assume all the duties of a top-flight out-half, can he hope to prove to his coach that he is ready to succeed Sexton as the top man.
Leinster's position in the play-off positions in the Pro12 remains fluid. They are not, with eight league games remaining after this one, guaranteed a top-four place – and even though their points differential is healthy, it is not so vigorous that they can afford to be experimental when it comes to their return from the tee.
According to Leinster assistant coach Jono Gibbes, Madigan's kicking abilities are not in question.
"Ian had an opportunity in Cardiff and didn't miss one," said Gibbes. "It's not so much that we take it (kicking) away from Mads, it's that Fergus is a really good goal-kicker. Having the luxury of someone as good at kicking as Fergus is fantastic.
"We're here to win games. And it's not always about using games as a development.
"Some of the games are tight and you have to use your best goal-kicker. Has Mads improved his goalkicking? Absolutely.
"From our point of view, certainly his confidence to come forward and have shots at goal ... my confidence in him has grown," added Gibbes.
Leinster welcome back a number of players for tonight's game and the positioning of Luke Fitzgerald at full-back is hugely interesting and could well be a nod to an Irish management request in light of Simon Zebo's injury.
Elsewhere, Devin Toner will surely be enthused from his recent stint with the Ireland training squad, while Sean Cronin and Eoin Reddan have also been made available to get game time ahead of Ireland's Six Nations resumption next weekend.
Treviso keep faith with most of the team that played in Newport last weekend. Tighthead prop Michael Rizzo and flanker Manoa Vosawai are the only changes to their pack, while at half-back Fabio Semenzato is paired with Italian-Australian James Ambrosini.
LEINSTER – L Fitzgerald; D Kearney, E O'Malley, A Goodman, F McFadden; I Madigan, E Reddan; J McGrath, S Cronin, J Hagan; B Marshall, D Toner; R Ruddock (capt), D Ryan, J Murphy. Reps: A Dundon, J O'Connell, M Bent, L Cullen, S Jennings, I Boss, N Reid, F Carr.
TREVISO – G Toniolatti; L Nitoglia, A Pratichetti, G La Grange, T Iannone; J Ambrosini, F Semenzato; M Rizzo, G Maistri, J Roux; M Fuser, C Van Zyl; D Budd, V Bernabo, M Vosawai. Reps: F Sbaraglini, I Fernandez-Rouyet, P Di Santo, E Ceccato, F Giusti, C Loamanu, L Morisi, B Williams.
Ref – L Hodges (Wales),