Bolt from the Blue
Leinster's McFadden has World Cup in sights after emerging from shadows
This time last year, Leinster took on Connacht and we suggested in these pages that Fergus McFadden's stuttering career needed a fire up its behind, perhaps by dint of a stint out west.
Although 23 at the time, others in world rugby had achieved veteran status while McFadden was languishing; in truth, behind some stellar company, with messrs O'Driscoll and D'Arcy blocking his immediate promotion in Michael Cheika's swansong season.
We noted that he only debuted in the Heineken Cup in December 2009 -- he got a mere 26 minutes against group whipping boys Scarlets; all season, he would play 859 minutes of rugby and complete only eight matches (all Magners League), scoring two tries.
In his previous two seasons, he had made only nine appearances in total. Of his then 18 appearances, half had come from the bench, while that Heineken Cup debut 12 months ago arrived more than two years after his Magners League debut.
His speedy international progression -- he had been at the Churchill Cup twice, winning the player of the tournament award as Ireland won the trophy in 2009, not to mention a World Championship at U-21 level -- would have led one to suspect that a regular diet of top-class rugby, as opposed to sloshing around the AIL, would be more prudent.
Or even, heaven forfend, Connacht. Even McFadden himself wondered where his future lay.
Yet, when new coach Joe Schmidt arrived last summer, he wiped the slate clean and, just six months into his enigmatic reign, the Kiwi's trust in his squad is obvious; as 2010 segues into 2011, McFadden's career has benefited.
Whether unlucky or not to miss out on last summer's Irish tour, McFadden's provincial progress has accelerated this season. The stats tell their own story. Minutes on the pitch -- 859, already reaching last season's figure even at the half-way stage.
Today will most probably mark his eighth 80-minute bow of this campaign, already matching last year's total. His three tries already puts him one ahead of last season's total.
Yet beyond the stats, you can feel the quality. Crucially, he has played in all Leinster's Heineken Cup games, completing the double-header against Clermont but doing more than just slotting in for high-profile absentees.
Watch him send Napolioni Nalaga reeling on his heels as he races down the wing away to Clermont, or sear down the touchline to ice the cake on a try-fest at home to Racing Metro.
Only a few months ago, he was publicly ruminating upon the fact that he would soon have to decide whether he had a future at Leinster at all. The last person to express similarly grave doubts was a certain Jonny Sexton. And look what happened to him. Now McFadden belongs. He believes he belongs. After waiting in the wings for so long, however, he will not allow complacency to become his foe. Still, talk of a World Cup appearance 12 months ago would have been scoffed at. Not now.
"I really enjoyed it in those two matches," he says, referring to his esteemed graduation to the tried and trusted ranks of Leinster's established Heineken Cup stars. "Joe had told me even before Brian O'Driscoll had got injured that he wanted me to mark Nalaga on the wing so he was going to try me there against the Scarlets. I showed okay against Scarlets and things went okay for me in those two games. I did enjoy it.
"They were two big games, obviously. Ideally, centre is my position but looking towards the World Cup it could bode well for me. Hopefully I will be playing centre again like I was up in Ravenhill against Ulster, but as long as I get a bit of ball..."
McFadden was conceding some 10 kilos and two inches to Clermont's intimidating Fijian Nalaga but the Old Belvedere graduate had his number and almost helped forge a try before half-time which could have dramatically altered the trend of that game.
"We did clips on all the players that we played against," says McFadden of his own personal impact. "Put him in a bit of space and he can go around players. He is very quick and a great athlete but thankfully he didn't get a whole lot of space against me and we managed to shut him down.
"He went for the bounce in the tackle, I suppose, but we had done the vision on them and I was ready for what they were going to bring and if he tried to go around me I would have been hopefully ready for that as well."
McFadden appreciates that his impact merely mirrors the efforts of his squad, particularly his pack, for whom rotation is proving an effortless burden.
"Our pack has really stepped up this year and in the last few games, without giving them too much of a big-up, we have bullied Clermont and Ulster in the last two games at times.
"Our pack have been giving us great go-forward ball and a great platform at the set-piece and that is exactly what the backs want and I want so if they can keep that going we will be happy.
"The last three or four weeks have been great. We would obviously have liked to get the win in Clermont but getting them back at the Aviva and the performance against them was great. The spirit in the squad is great. Some of the older lads are away at the moment, but some of the younger lads have stepped up. Guys like Rhys (Ruddock) and Dominic (Ryan) in the back-row. It's great to have the strength in depth."
Once a part of that strength in depth, McFadden has impressively come to the fore in recent months. You get the feeling he intends to stay there.