Pretender to the throne
YOU sensed it was coming. With 77 minutes on the clock and Leinster pushing hard for a seventh try, replacement out-half Ian Madigan cleared out a ruck after Jamie Heaslip took up the ball and, walking casually back into position, assessed his options.
Realising the demoralised Bath defenders were vulnerable on the far side, Madigan broke into a trot and then accelerated onto a pass from the next ruck -- a quick shimmy and he was over.
It was Madigan's fifth try from 11 appearances this season, a remarkable tally considering his position and the fact he started in only six of those matches. It was especially noteworthy when you consider that Isa Nacewa (recognised as one of Leinster's finest attackers and looking as sharp as ever), has managed only one try from 12 games, all of them over 80 minutes.
There was a surety to Madigan's latest score and reaction -- a confident strut and a few words for himself which appeared to come straight out of the 'that's what I'm talking about' school of American sport -- that told its own story.
He's not lacking in self-belief, this one. Every player suffers a major blow to their confidence at some stage of their career and Madigan's came early. He played full-back on the 2007 Blackrock College side that were victims of one of the most famous upsets in Leinster Schools Cup rugby history.
Kilkenny College are not one of the heavyweights of the Leinster Schools game and were expected to serve as cannon fodder on Rock's march to the semi-finals. Instead, having forced them to a replay first time out, a superb defensive display secured a momentous 14-13 win and sent shockwaves through the schools game.
It was a monumental performance by the underdogs but Blackrock still had an opportunity to steal the win when Madigan lined up a penalty in front of the posts, 12 minutes into injury time. It faded left and the game was up.
The schools rugby system -- where seasons and 'school honour' are defined by one-off matches -- places an inordinate pressure on teenage shoulders and nowhere more than at Ireland's most famous rugby nursery, Blackrock College. It is also something of a surreal, elitist environment -- tapped into expertly by the Ross O'Carroll-Kelly phenomenon -- where Senior Cup players are treated like demi-gods and the adjustment process on leaving school can be an exacting one, with many promising players falling away.
Not Madigan. His progress has been steady since leaving school, picking up 14 caps for the Ireland U-20s and, following his debut in 2009, 34 senior appearances for Leinster -- at a time when they have established themselves as one of the premier forces in European rugby.
His confidence has grown in tandem. There is an arrogance to Madigan's play which seems perfectly suited to the requirements placed on top-level out-halves, Ronan O'Gara providing the perfect example from the past 12 years.
The running threat is obvious but the other parts to Madigan's game seem equally proficient, notably a bullet-like, accurate pass -- such as the one that set Luke Fitzgerald spectacularly on his way when Cardiff Blues were demolished at the RDS at the start of the month -- with the caveat being a need to work on the softer variety.
Furthermore, despite not being the biggest player on the pitch, Madigan does not hold back in defence, earning the praise of Michael Cheika back in March 2010, when the then Leinster coach noted: "We have been pretty happy with the young guys who have come up recently and players like Ian Madigan have shown real physicality, which is pleasing."
His kicking out of hand may not yet be at the level of a Jonathan Sexton or Ronan O'Gara but it is an encouraging work in progress, as is his place-kicking -- with limited opportunity given that Fergus McFadden and Nacewa are next in line off the tee behind Sexton.
Leinster are always keen to keep their players grounded -- one of the reasons for their progress over the past number of seasons -- but coach Joe Schmidt, while recognising the areas to work on, also recognises the qualities Madigan brings to the squad.
"He's getting there," said Schmidt. "There is a big shadow cast by Jonny and it is good to see Ian coming out of that. There is a full spectrum to what he can deliver.
"He is a good defender, he is a brave kid, not afraid to put his body on the line, and his passing game is really improving. He has got really good balance and is very quick to spot an opportunity and go for it and his kicking game is coming on.
"He still has lots to work on and he would probably describe me as fussy but I think Ian is making really good progress."
That progress has been aided by the unfortunate long-term injury to Mat Berquist at the start of the season and, with the Six Nations and Wolfhounds matches against England a matter of weeks away, there are opportunities for elevation.
O'Gara and Sexton are still unquestionably Ireland's top two out-halves but the third spot is open. With the need to advance post-World Cup, continuing to use Paddy Wallace as back-up out-half does not appear a progressive policy and there are several candidates jostling for position.
Ian Keatley with Munster and Connacht's Niall O'Connor have had their good moments this season, while Ulster's Ian Humphreys remains one of the finest footballers in the country but is hampered by suspect defence.
Then there is Madigan. With Sexton operating under the Player Management Programme, there will be opportunities for the 22-year-old to prove his worth over the next few weeks and if he continues to look the part for Leinster, it will be hard to resist his claims on the Irish number three slot.
Madigan has come a long way since that miss against Kilkenny and, now entering a critical phase of his career, he looks ready to really kick on.
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