The great No 10 debate
Schmidt facing huge Biarritz dilemma – will he opt for class of Sexton or stick with rising star Madigan?
Published 18/04/2013 | 05:00
JOE SCHMIDT has plenty on his mind at the moment as he contemplates the possibility of becoming the next Ireland coach.
However, he still has to focus on his position with Leinster and it was clear on Tuesday, when he waded into the debate over the decision not to cite Paul O'Connell, that he had been passionately affected by events at Thomond Park last weekend.
With so much happening off the field, it is easy to forget that the Leinster coach has a major on-pitch dilemma on the horizon – just who will he play at out-half against Biarritz in the Amlin cup semi-final next weekend?
Does he restore Jonny Sexton to the No 10 shirt, assuming the Ireland pivot comes through Sunday's meeting with Pro12 bottom side Zebre without any ill-effects?
Or should he stick with the in-form Ian Madigan, who will replace Sexton when he departs for Paris at the end of the season?
It is a dilemma that is likely to follow Schmidt if, as expected, he takes the Ireland job and the kind of headache that coaches are supposed to love.
However, there are various sub-plots that make this decision one of the most difficult he has faced in his three years at Leinster.
On the one hand, Sexton needs game time to prove his fitness for the Lions tour. He played just 111 minutes of Ireland's Six Nations campaign and has not seen any action since limping off against England on February 10.
He is widely seen as the favourite to lead the Lions backline in Australia and has been one of the province's leading lights since 2009.
But the reality for Leinster is that he won't be there next season and, since he made his decision to leave in January, there is a constituency of fans who believe that Madigan should be backed to give him the exposure needed to take the mantle next September.
Injury, as it happened, paved the way for that anyway, similar to when a knee injury suffered by the soon-to-depart Felipe Contepomi allowed Sexton his shot.
The 27-year-old's woes handed Madigan his chance, but few could have expected that the 24-year-old would have had the impact that he has had in a blue shirt since earning his first two Ireland caps off the bench during the Six Nations.
The fact that his seamless performance at Thomond Park last weekend went largely unnoticed spoke volumes for Madigan's development.
In six weeks, the former Blackrock College man has forged a reputation for excellence and suddenly life after Jonny doesn't seem so bleak at the RDS. Legendary former Ireland out-half Ollie Campbell knows both players well. The seven-times capped Lion does not envy the decision Schmidt must make next week ahead of the clash with Biarritz.
"It is a real dilemma for Joe and I am very happy it is not me who has to make the decision," he admitted.
"On the one hand, in Jonathan you have the Lions Test out-half in waiting, a seasoned, mature, accomplished No 10, one of the best in the world.
"In four years, he has won 30-odd caps for Ireland, played in the World Cup, won more than 100 caps for Leinster, won no less than three Heineken Cups and played a crucial part in each.
"He has proven his leadership qualities, most memorably in the final against Northampton, is a possible future Ireland captain and has the all-round game. He can pass, run, kick and defend.
"On Ian's side, Carwyn James – the coach of the first successful Lions tour of New Zealand in 1971 – once said that although rugby was a physical sport, it should be more about inspiration than perspiration. Those words were written with the likes of Ian Madigan in mind.
"He does have the X-factor, he is a breath of fresh air, he excites people. It is a real privilege to see someone like Ian blossom right in front of our eyes in the last four, five weeks.
"He is absolutely on fire at the moment and we are seeing the beginnings of a great, great future with Ian Madigan. Ian has suddenly added a kicking game to his repertoire and can't seem to miss at the moment."
Campbell has been watching Madigan since he was a mini-rugby player at Anglesea Road and played alongside his father Mick. He compares the 24-year-old to former Australia star Stephen Larkham and there has been some talk that Madigan could be an outside bet to tour with the Lions Down Under this summer.
The youngster was watched by Lions coach Warren Gatland last weekend against Munster and played a starring role in Leinster's Challenge Cup win over the New Zealander's former club Wasps eight days previously.
"I think it is a little bit premature just at the moment, but in the history of Lions selections and Lions tours there have been regular surprises," Campbell said.
"It wouldn't be the biggest surprise if he was selected, but it may be a little bit premature. It shows how far he has come in the last two months."
Whether Madigan is considered in that class just yet remains to be seen, but Saturday week's European clash is looming large and much will depend on Sexton's ability to hit the ground running against Zebre this weekend.
"Jonathan will have to prove that he is fit and ready to go," Campbell acknowledged. "I would counter that particular argument by pointing to the one and only Paul O'Connell after his return from a much longer time out of the game. He has come back and he is fresh, keen and enthusiastic and playing with the enthusiasm of a child.
"I suspect we could see that from Jonathan when he comes back. Rather than being rusty, the enforced rest period may have re-energised him and we could see him having as big an effect as O'Connell has had with Munster."
Schmidt will keep his counsel on the decision until next week, but along with the possibility of becoming Ireland coach, the call is sure to dominate his thoughts in the coming days.
While it is causing him a headache now, Campbell believes that the presence of such quality fly-halves at Leinster, as well as options such as Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley, leaves the New Zealander in a really strong position if he takes the Ireland job.
This, the Old Belvedere man feels, is the most depth in the No 10 position Ireland have had in recent memory.
"It is only a couple of years ago, in 2009 in the Grand Slam year, that Ronan O'Gara was the king of Ireland, but, otherwise, the cupboard at No 10 seemed bare," he recalled.
"In January 2009, Jonathan Sexton played an All-Ireland League game for St Mary's against Old Belvedere because he couldn't get into the Leinster squad. That's only four years ago.
"Fast-forward to now and you have Sexton, Jackson, Madigan and Keatley. So it is healthy.
"What could be better? It will bring out the best in each of them. There is nothing like competition to bring out the best in players of that talent," Campbell concluded
The future appears bright for Schmidt, even if the present throws up one of the toughest calls of his Leinster career to date – a decision that could affect his Leinster legacy if he departs and is also likely to follow him into the Ireland job, should he take it.
It's a headache he may have to get used to, though.